Grudem, Trump, and Aquinas vs. the Disruptive Grace of the Gospel

I would like to offer some clarification regarding my previous post that drew a parallel between Barth’s response to German Christians who supported the National Socialist party and American evangelicals, such as Wayne Grudem, who are advocating for Donald Trump as president. While I still stand by my original post, I think some further explanation might be helpful to clarify what I intended to communicate.

It seems that some people have stumbled over two things in particular. First, some have complained that the parallel between the political environments of Nazi Germany and contemporary America is completely unfounded. Second, some have criticized me for not actually addressing the specific points that Grudem raised in his original article. In barth4response to both objections, I would simply like to say that they both completely miss the fundamental point that I wanted to make, namely, that Grudem’s article in support of Trump manifests the kind of religious syncretism endemic within American evangelicalism that obtains when the kingdom of Christ is conflated with the kingdom of man. The basic critique that I intended to lodge against Grudem did not ultimately depend on a perfect parallel between Barth’s context and ours, nor did it require a point-by-point refutation of Grudem’s case. Rather, my post went below the surface of Grudem’s various points and critiqued the underlying fact that he appears to define what constitutes a ‘morally good choice’ apart from explicit mention of the primacy of Christ and the upside-down kingdom ethic deriving from his gospel. When this occurs, it is almost inevitable that we will confuse the ostensibly virtuous moral agendas aimed at the betterment of society with the church’s radically disruptive calling to preach the gospel of Christ to the world.

This is evidenced, for example, in the ways in which many of us American evangelicals simply assume that the Republican agenda is identical to (or at least closely allied with) the Christian vocation. The lines here become blurred to the point at which the two are no longer distinguishable. This has the tendency to lead to us to demonize the opposing political side (in this case the Democrats and Hillary Clinton), the consequence of which is that we come to regard that side as the evil posing the greatest threat to our Republican-Christian agenda and that must therefore be stopped at any cost. When this happens, we become willing to compromise the irreducible uniqueness of our calling as citizens of God’s kingdom by supporting a candidate (in this case Donald Trump) who, while perhaps offering the best hope of thwarting the looming Democratic threat, nevertheless presents himself as equally (albeit differently) opposed to the gospel of the kingdom. Thus, in the name of a confused morality, we oppose one ‘anti-Christ’ by simply endorsing another ‘anti-Christ’, all the while thinking that we have God on our side.

This is what lay at the heart of Barth’s criticism of German Christians who had similarly confused the Christian vocation with the so-called betterment of their country. In Barth’s view, the German Christian compromise rested upon a form of natural theology grounded in the assumption that it was possible to define morality partly on the basis of what is evident through natural reason rather than exclusively through God’s revelation in Christ and attested in Scripture. Related to this was Barth’s famous rejection of the analogia entis (the analogy of being) which he infamously called the ‘anti-Christ’. Although certainly a highly polemical charge, this assertion stemmed from Barth’s opposition to a number of ideologies that presupposed a synthesis between God and the world, between grace and nature, and between divine revelation and human reason. Barth realized that the conflation of these elements provided the basis for an untold number of errors such as those evident in Roman Catholicism, neo-Protestantism, and German nationalism, all of which shared to some degree a belief in the fundamental harmony between the dictates of human reason and divine revelation. Probably the most famous and articulate exponent of this view was Thomas Aquinas. Timothy Renick comments:

In this simple idea is evidenced another great contribution that Aquinas makes to the shift from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance and eventually the Enlightenment. Sure, moral truths are contained in the Bible, Aquinas tells us. One can and should consult the Bible for the Ten Commandments and for important dictates about loving one’s neighbor, turning the other cheek, and so forth. But one can also find these (and other) moral truths by an alternate route: reason. If one, by means of reason, taps into and conforms to the natural law of God, one is morally in the right. If one acts contrary to reason and hence against the natural law of God, one is morally wrong…

Like many of the changes that he effected in Western thought, Aquinas’s description of how we go about discovering moral truth seems less than revolutionary by modern standards. It seems almost traditional. (One reason for this is that Aquinas has proven so influential in shaping tradition.) After all, he is not suggesting that the findings of reason will ever contradict the moral assertions of the Bible. Just the opposite: Aquinas is confident that the Bible puts forth flawless moral truth and, as such, can never be contradicted by any moral conclusion correctly drawn by reason. The implications of Aquinas’s introduction of a “natural law” to ethics, however, are far reaching.

For one thing, his natural law theory reveals a certain optimism about the human condition—an optimism that, while novel in Aquinas’s day, has become a defining trait of the modern age. It is our very nature, Aquinas tells us, to pursue the good. We have good natural inclinations, and we have all kinds of God-given tools (such as reason and intellect) to help us find that good…

For Aquinas, while the sin of Adam is very real, its effect is less devastating. Original sin corrupts our once pure reason so that at times we choose the wrong means to the good (and hence end up doing bad). But (unlike in Augustine’s account) the good is still the thing we seek. Even a “monster,” Aquinas tells us, seeks good things like peace and security; he merely chooses the wrong means to those ends because of his flawed reason. That humans are good, that they can usually be trusted, and that they have both the inclination and the ability to find the truth all are ideas put forth by Aquinas that would later become hallmarks of the Enlightenment. [1]

It is beyond dispute that the approach of Thomas to the definition and knowledge of morality has in large part determined ethical reflection in Western society. His approach has also exerted a decisive impact on much Protestant thought. Grudem, for instance, manifests this Thomist influence when in his Systematic Theology he interprets Romans 2:14-15 as teaching that an “inward sense of right and wrong that God gives to all people means that they will frequently approve of moral standards that reflect many of the moral standards in Scripture” [2]. The problems inhering in Thomas’ (and by extension Grudem’s) approach, however, are manifold. If we take it as axiomatic that moral truths discoverable by human reason will cohere with revelation, then the door is opened to an endless number of distortions. Conceivably, we are able under this pretense to justify actions that actually oppose the gospel due to the fact that we assume that what seems ‘moral’ in our own minds must simply be in harmony with the Word of God. As Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees, we end up “teach[ing] as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). This is the mentality that enabled German Christians to make peace with Hitler, and I would argue that it is the same mentality that enables American evangelicals, like Grudem, to make peace with Donald Trump.

A further problem, as made clear in Renick’s explanation, is that Thomas’ approach ‘works’ only insofar as it is believed, against historic Protestant teaching, that human beings, though wounded by sin, are nevertheless basically good. If, on the other hand, human beings are totally depraved (the historic Protestant view), effected by the fall from top to bottom and down to the very roots of our being, then we simply cannot maintain faith in our own capacity to arrive at truly moral conclusions. This is what strikes me as odd about Grudem’s argument. While he wants to maintain the Protestant position and reject any notion that human beings are basically good, he still seems to adopt a view of ‘morally good choices’ that necessarily depends on an optimistic view of human nature such as that espoused by Thomas.

The gospel, by contrast, cannot be reduced to ‘morally good choices’. It cannot be discerned through the use of natural human reason. The ethical lifestyle that it enjoins cannot be synthesized with the pursuit of a better society (although the latter may certainly result from the former). The gospel, and the kingdom that it proclaims, are quite simply not from this world. The gospel is the revelation of the righteousness of God that breaks into the sphere of our existence in shocking, unexpected, and counterintuitive ways. It turns the world upside down by placing the last first and the first last, by throwing down the exalted and raising up the downcast, and by shaming the strong, the proud, and the wise things of the world with those that are weak, humble, and foolish. This is what Paul was getting at when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

A scandal and a stumbling block. This is the preaching of the cross. If it is to this gospel that we pledge our ultimate allegiance, then we cannot support a presidential candidate who is fundamentally opposed to it, no matter how we might justify ourselves in doing so. Appeals to the ‘moral good’ are insufficient if that moral good is not defined in strict accordance with the gospel that is disruptive of all human pretensions and natural conceptions of morality. As George Hunsinger puts it with reference to Barth’s understanding of grace:

Grace that is not disruptive is not grace…Grace, strictly speaking, does not mean continuity but radical discontinuity, not reform but revolution, not violence but nonviolence, not the perfecting of virtues but the forgiveness of sins, not improvement but resurrection from the dead. It means repentance, judgment, and death as the portal to life. It means negation and the negation of the negation. The grace of God really comes to lost sinners, but in coming it disrupts them to the core. It slays to make alive and sets the captives free. [3]

Since Barth understood the gospel of grace in this way, it was unthinkable for him to make peace in the name of an ostensible moral good with the “rulers of this age” who, like those in Jesus’ day, “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). I certainly am no supporter of Hillary Clinton, but I do not think that the answer is for American evangelicals to support a presidential candidate who seems equally (though for different reasons) opposed to the gospel of Christ and the kingdom of God. Our citizenship is in heaven. Here we have no lasting city, but we are seeking the city that is to come. It is a city that will be built on a stone not cut by human hands that will smash all earthly kingdoms to dust and will become a mountain filling the entire earth. This is the stone that the builders rejected, and it has indeed become the chief cornerstone.

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[1] Renick, T.M., 2002. Aquinas for Armchair Theologians First edition., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. pp.68-72.

[2] Grudem, W.A., 2004. Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House. p.660.

[3] Hunsinger, G., 2000. Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Eerdmans. pp.16-17.

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