There is an excellent interview with Peter Leithart over here today. I have to get his new book as soon as I can. Here is an excerpt:
Trevin Wax: You describe the U.S. as a post-Christendom Christian nation. What do you mean by this description?
Peter Leithart: Christendom was a political system that officially subordinated political power to the purposes of God’s kingdom. In practice, Christendom was full of injustices and evil, but in theory it was a political system where theological convictions concerning salvation, the church, the Eucharist, and the future provided the framework for political life.
By the time the first English colonists settled in new England, that order had already collapsed in Europe because of the fracturing of the church at the Reformation. Even though the settlers wanted to establish a Christian polity, it was a new start. Unlike Europe, America has no memory of medieval Christendom – no cathedrals or monasteries or castles – and we never have. From the beginning, America was “post-Christendom” in that sense.
When we get to the late 18th century, we are again in a different cultural world. The American Founders were not trying to shape a political system within the political framework of Christendom. As secularists often point out, there are virtually no references to Christianity in the American Constitution. Even though most of the founders are Christians, their political outlook isn’t forged by the convictions of Christendom.
America is unthinkable apart from Christianity and Christendom; but our polity represents a fairly radical break from the Christian tradition. Oliver O’Donovan captures this when he says that the First Amendment marks the end of Christendom. We are a polity where the church is no longer recognized as having a central and essential public role.
In Peter Leithart’s excellent paper “Did Plato Read Moses”, he wrote:
According to Elias J. Bickerman, “long before Alexander, Greeks and Jews had encountered each other outside their homelands. In the Persian period [i.e., late sixthand early fight centuries] the Jewis diaspora had spread from the Ethiopean frontier to the Caspian Sea. And almost everywhere these Jews had come across Greek traders, craftsmen, and mercenaries.” It is possible, he suggests, that “Hebrew ideas and images could have reached Greece long before Alexander.”
Leithart also cites Neusner on the extent of the diaspora.
By the second century B.C., Jacob Neusner writes,
Every territory in the plain of the Tigris and Euphrates, from Armenia to the Persian Gulf, as well as north eastward to the Caspian Sea, and eastward to Media, contained Jewish populations, and in some of these places, particularly in Babylonia and Adiabene, these settlements were populous and strong.
With this in mind, I read with interest this story about a Greek helmet discovered in Haifa Bay today. An excerpt:
At the time the helmet was made, circa 600 B.C., Greek colonies dotted the Mediterranean coast, stretching from the Black Sea to southern France. Even so, there is no evidence of Greek colonies in Israel, indicating the warrior who ventured into Haifa Bay was likely the leader of a group of Greek mercenaries.
This warrior was likely one of Egyptian pharaoh Necho II’s troops, which he sent through Israel accompanied by a fleet of ancient ships. The pharaoh was heavily involved in military campaigns in the region for nearly a decade, operations in which this warrior and his group likely were involved.
“They were not fighting for the Greeks, they were fighting for Egypt,” Sharvit told LiveScience in an interview.
The series of wars engulfed Egypt, Judah (a Jewish kingdom), Assyria and Babylon, with Necho II of Egypt intervening on the side of Assyria.
The end result of these conflicts was the conquest of Judah and the rise of a resurgent Babylon led by King Nebuchadnezzar II. These events would be immortalized in the Torah (the Christian Old Testament).
At some point, amidst all this history, the elite Greek warrior’s helmet ended up at the bottom of Haifa Bay.
Plato lived from somewhere around 424 BC and died somewhere around 347 BC. This Greek mercenary helmet, circa 600 BC, is yet another point of contact showing that it is eminently possible that Jewish Scriptures or at least knowledge of them was passed from Israel to Greece. Plato may indeed have read Moses.
Christians in the modern age have often ridden the wave of sacrificial politics, and American Christians have shown as little resistance as any. Christians are among the most patriotic Americans. So seamless is our union of American ideals with Christianity that it is difficult for us to consider even the possibility that our nation is a sacrificial system competing with God and the church for our loyalty. It is virtually unthinkable that God might call us to the sacrifice of martyrdom in opposition to America rather than to sacrifice in defense of America. No wonder activist Christians are so readily folded back into the system. Until we get sacrifice straight, until there are actual martyrs, our resistance to statism will remain anemic.
His article describes nation states as transformed churches, demanding ultimate loyalty.
I finished up Leithart’s From Silence to Song yesterday and found his writing illuminating as always. He discusses the Reformed “Regulative Principle” and recasts it in a very different light (a much better one). The Regulative Principle is usually held to mean that anything God hasn’t expressly commanded in worship is forbidden, you’ll often see it trumpeted in modern times by nuts like the Still Waters Revival folks who hold to no instruments in music and exclusive Psalmody.
Leithart contrasts this with the canonical example of David’s instructions for Temple and Tabernacle worship. He writes:
A strict regulativist living at the time of David would syllogize thus:
Major premise: Whatever is not commanded is forbidden.
Minor premise: Singing is not commanded in the Levitical Law.
Conclusion: Therefore, singing in worship is forbidden.
David appears to have reasoned by analogy:
Major premise: The Law governs worship.
Minor premise #1: The Law prescribes that trumpets be played over the public ascensions, in public worship.
Minor premise #2: The trumpet is a musical instrument.
Conclusion: Analogously, song and other music are a legitimate part of worship.
In place of a “regulation-by-explicit command” principle, David operated according to a “regulation-by-analogy” principle.
He qualifies this by showing that not all analogies are valid – pigs can’t be offered in sacrifice because cows are, so Scripture controls the application. Once again, Leithart’s writings are some of the best theological insights you can find today on a host of subjects.
Still Waters Revival Books
From Silence to Song
Commenting on Ecclesiastes in general, Peter Leithart writes:
…the exhortation to joy, feasting and productive labor is inferred from the fact that life is vaporous and short. Joy is not a contradiction to the reality of a vaporous world; joy is the “fitting” response to a vaporous world. This is neither Stoic resignation nor Epicurean hedonism. Epicurean “joy” is a desperate whistling past the graveyard, a hedonism haunted by the realization that the world is under no one’s control. Epicurean joy is finally tragic joy. Solomonic joy is a hedonism that arises from the confidence that the world is always under Yaweh’s control. Solomon is saying that the world itself teaches us that it is not under our control, but Solomon adds the implication that the world is under God’s control. Instead of chafing at our finitude and yearning to be as gods, Solomon counsels that we rejoice in our limits and in all the vaporous life that we are given.
– Deep Comedy
Peter Leithart says that Greeks and other ancient pagans saw history as “essentially tragic.”
Things had begun well in a world of plenty and joy, but the world was bound to degenerate and decline until it sputtered and whimpered to a halt.
In contrast, the Bible is all about a bright future (hence postmillenialism). He says in his book “Deep Comedy”:
Against the classical nostalgia for a golden age lost and unlikely to be revived, the Bible, beginning with the prophets of Israel and continuing into the New Testament, holds out the promise of a future age of glory, peace, justice and abundance. The last state is not worse than the first, and infinitely superior to the painful evils of the ages between the first and last.
I received the book yesterday. It is surprisingly large – most of Leithart’s works are shorter. Here’s a quote from the Introduction:
…one aim in this book is to contribute to the formation of a theology that does not simply inform but is a social science.
In contrast to many modern theologians who consider social science to be foundational for theology, Milbank argues that classical orthodoxy contains its own account of social and political life.
I love this – we don’t need to go to sociology and political science for instructions on how to order our lives. Theology, rightly conceived, contains all we need for every area of life. This is Reformational, Medieval, and Kuyperian!