I put up a Facebook post earlier today raising questions for Stephen Wolfe and his “Christian Nationalism” project.
Because it got so many responses, I figure I’d share a few more thoughts, but it is much easier to do so on a blog than Facebook.
First, I expect that I will like much of Wolfe’s book, based on articles I have read from him in the past. But I also have a hunch I will disagree with some things. Of course, in general, I am a big fan of what Canon Press puts out. I am also only a few pages into Wolfe’s book so it is not as if I have a firm opinion on it. At this point, I’m just asking questions. I actually like his definition of Christian nationalism, though I think it needs to be developed (and I suppose that’s what he will do in the remainder of the book).
Second, based on the response to my questions about Galatians 2, I asked exactly the kind of question that needs to be asked. Every scholar worth his salt wants his proposals tested and vetted, and I’m sure Wolfe does as well. Some thought my question was a joke or a “gotcha” type question or the answer was so obvious that it was not worthy of a response; I suppose that kind of deflection is useful if you have no actual answer. Those who took my question more seriously fell into a few camps. Many of the responses were exaggerated, e.g., suggesting that by raising the question I did, I was suggesting that nations do not really exist. Others seem to think my question is a refutation of Wolfe’s whole project (I don’t think it is). Still others used the comments section to push their own hobby horses.
In reality, I’m asking specific questions about Wolfe’s project so I can get the lay of the land. I’m trying to figure out how his categories map onto a “real life” situation like the one Paul and Peter are involved in in Galatians 2. I’m trying to figure out how ecclesiology and political theology relate in his project. I’m trying to figure out how to square his thesis with biblical exegesis. Wolfe says he is not interacting with Scripture much in his book but as a pastor, I don’t have that luxury. If Christian Nationalism is the position we should adopt, recommend, defend, and work to implement, we should be able to demonstrate from the Scriptures to the ordinary Christian why it is good, true, and biblical.
Here is my Facebook post:
Would Stephen Wolfe have opposed Peter to his face the way Paul did in Galatians 2 when Peter withdrew fellowship from the Gentiles in order to eat only with his own people? Or would Wolfe have justified Peter’s actions since he was acting out of his natural instinct to have affection only for his own people?”
At last glance there were over 100 comments on my Facebook post — but interestingly not a single one gave a straight up answer to my question.
Here are a few notes on the discussion that took place in response to my post:
1. I suppose it is necessary to say a few things about the Galatians 2 text. Fear of persecution was no doubt part of what led Peter to break fellowship with Gentiles. But we know from Paul’s response that was not all of it. Paul does not just tell Peter he needs courage; he actually develops an extensive theological argument to answer Peter (and others who were doing something similar to what Peter did). Peter’s actions were not only cowardly, they were in opposition to the gospel which Paul defines in 3:8 as “in you [that is, in Abraham's seed] all nations shall be blessed.” Peter’s practical ethnocentrism led him to deny that the blessing was for all other ethne - it seems this action is very relevant to Wolfe’s book, and it seems that Paul’s response is crucial to developing any kind of properly biblical
There are a lot of ways to go with this, but here’s one: Presumably Peter and these Gentile believers did not have much of a shared culture outside of their common faith in Christ and yet the gospel demanded that they have table fellowship. Undoubtedly, this table fellowship would change the way they related to one another socially and politically, not just spiritually. Peter’s spiritual commitment to the gospel had to reshape his natural affection for the Jewish people who would now be his enemies. And his commitment to the gospel was supposed to create new affection he did not have before for Gentile Christians. To think that these affections could be contained in an ecclesiastical box, without impinging on Peter’s broader social practices, political views, etc., is non-sense. Human life does not work that way, nor should it.
Wolfe says that shared culture is necessary to social cohesion (see pages 24-26). Wolfe says, "The instinct to love the familiar more than the foreign is good and remains operative in all spiritual states of man." But is Galatians 2 (and much of the rest of the NT) a counterpoint to that claim (and if not, why not)? After all, much of the NT is taken up with seeking to help Jewish and Gentile believers to coalesce into shared ecclesial communities. They did not have to do everything the same way (e.g., Paul deals with “strong” and “weak” believers which might correlate to Gentile and Jew in some cases), but they did have to form a socially cohesive community. If the apostles had followed what Wolfe says is the instinct even of redeemed man to love the familiar, what would have happened at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15?
If choosing similar people over dissimilar people is not a result of fallenness but is natural, a “deep instinct to our good” (p. 24-25), as Wolfe claims, then what do we make of Peter getting rebuked for choosing those who were culturally similar (his fellow Jews in the circumcision party) over believing Gentiles who were not like him culturally? It only works to say “this is a spiritual issue, not a social issue” if spiritual and social issues can be neatly separated. But can they be? That separation needs to be demonstrated, not just assumed.
Galatians 3:28 means there is no difference with regard to salvation when it comes to sex, nationality, etc. We are all one in Christ as far as our redemptive status is concerned. But the gospel does not obliterate these features of our personal identity, calling, etc. As Wolfe says (and as I would agree), grace perfects nature. The question with regard to the human family is this: Does grace mean each particular nation gets perfected on its own? Or does this perfection of the one human race somehow entail a unity-in-and-through-diversity for the nations? Does grace’s perfection of nature ultimately mean all the nations will be united into the one “holy nation” of the church? What does Peter mean when he calls the church a “holy nation”? Is the church in any way a model for earthly nations? None of this suggests nations will cease to exist, but it does bear upon how they exist, and how they should relate to the church and to one another. As I see it, when grace perfects a nation, that nation’s peculiar cultural treasures are consecrated to God’s kingdom. But that nation also seeks peace with other discipled nations, as swords are beaten into plough shares. In mere Christendom, I see no reason why nations should not intermingle quite a bit (as they did historically, for example, in what we came to call “Europe,” but which was once a bunch of disparate people groups very much at odds with one another).
2. There are many varieties of what could be called Christian nationalism, just as there many varieties of ecclesiocentrism. In fact, there could very well be a form of Christian nationalism that IS ecclesiocentric — and a form of ecclesiocentrism that is also Christian nationalist in character. I’ve been labelled as both a "Christian nationalist" and an “ecclesiocentrist" and, to some degree at least, I can see why I would wear both labels.
But it seems that those who are on the Christian nationalist side are being extremely defensive. Why be so touchy when questions are raised about your position, especially if your position derives from a book that has only been out about a week? Can we at least have a friendly discussion while folks get up to speed on "the latest thing"?
It seems some commentators jumped immediately to the conclusion that I must not believe nations exist if I raise this kind of question. Non-sense. I certainly believe nations exist, and they should be discipled/Christianized. But we should also not act like Pentecost never happened. Pentecost is in at least some sense the reversal of Babel. It does not reverse Babel in that it undoes the existence of nations as such, but it does undo Babel in that it calls the nations to share in and unite in the blessings of the gospel. Pentecost does not destroy national diversity, but it does redeem the cursed diversity of Babel by showing that the various nations of the world can be integrated into the single “holy nation” of the body of Christ, the church catholic.
Nations most certainly exist; the Great Commission presupposes their ongoing reality. The fact that many nations have “fuzzy edges” (e.g., due to immigration or racial inter-mixing) and can therefore be difficult to define with precision does not mean they aren’t real. But we also need to be careful to specify what we mean when we call nations “natural.” Here, I would distinguish nations from sex/gender. Sex is creational and therefore an immutable aspect of creation (even in the resurrection). Nations are providential and therefore contingent; they come and go in history (e.g., there were no Americans a few centuries ago; many ancient nations no longer exist today). I’m not denying we will have ethnicity in the resurrection in some sense, but it is also obvious that in the resurrection all the redeemed from all the different ethnic groups will become one people, one bride of Christ, one city/nation, one household. Does that eschatological oneness mean anything in the present?
Obviously, every nation has to have some measure of commonality, some measure of shared culture (language, customs, etc.) in order to function. The people at Babel could no longer function as one people/nations because their languages and confessions were suddenly different. But it is also possible to go too far in the other direction, requiring too much uniformity. What about these equations:
Christian faith + common language = Christian nation
Christian faith + common language + shared skin color = Christian nation
Christian faith + common language + shared skin color + common ancestry = Christian nation
Christian faith + common language + shared skin color + common ancestry + love for same foods and sports + same Christmas customs = Christian nation
How much commonality, beyond a common faith, is needed to establish a Christian nation? Frankly, I cannot see that skin color is all that important; certainly it is not something Scripture calls much attention to (as I have written about elsewhere). A shared language is obviously vital so we can communicate, but I am not certain that we all need to like the same sports (can soccer lovers and baseball lovers share a country?) or foods (what's wrong with having Mexican and Chinese restaurants across the street from one another?).
Of course, we could also ask about the nature of the Christian faith confessed. Can Protestants of different denominations all join together to form a Christian nation? What about Roman Catholics? Roman Catholic immigration was once very controversial in America. That seems kind of quaint today. At the very least, it seems there needs to a be a meaningful embrace of the ecumenical creeds in order to form a Christian nation. Beyond that, it's an open discussion, though I would certainly favor a robust Reformational catholic version of the faith that publicly confesses Christ as Lord over all.
3. Another issue here is how to relate natural affections for my own people to the supernatural (?) affection I have for fellow believers who share my faith but not my ethnicity. Again, some hyper sensitive defenders of Christian nationalism jumped to the conclusion that my question must mean I am denying natural affections. But that’s just plain dumb. There is no reason natural affection for my family and nation cannot exist along side supernatural affection for my brothers and sisters in Christ (many of whom do not share my ethnicity). C. S Lewis’ “four loves” model is helpful here.
To approach this issue another way, how does my allegiance to my earthly ethne relate to my allegiance to the “holy ethne” of the church? Peter’s desire to be a good first century Jew ran into conflict with his call to be an apostle and carry out a mission that included reaching Gentiles and incorporating them into the church. That's why Paul opposed him. It will not do to simply say that the church is "heavenly" and nations "earthly" because Christians live in both spheres at once. Nature and grace cannot be kept separate in that way. It would be a serious mistake to think we live in grace-realm ruled by Scripture and an earthly realm ruled by natural law. Christ and his Word rule over all of life and all nations and all of history.
4. Some in the comments section did establish a clear hierarchy of values. When we have to choose between our family or our nation and the people of God, we go with the people of God. I agree with that, of course. I’d like to see Wolfe say it (and perhaps he does — I’ll continue reading). Here’s a test case: Jewish Christians in the first century were pressured by their countrymen to take-up arms and defend the temple. When Jewish Christians refused to do so, they were accused of being traitors. Instead of fighting to defend their ethne according to the flesh, they fled the city as the Roman armies approached. Of course, they did so because Jesus had predicted these events and told them what to do. Is there room in Wolfe’s Christian nationalism for the kind of actions those Jewish believers took on the brink of 70AD in Jerusalem?
For my part, I believe a healthy patriotism can co-exist with a higher love for God’s people and kingdom. The church is not my only nation or family, but it is my first nation and family, my primary nation and family. Just as I would want my child excommunicated from the church if he rebels and apostatizes (because water is thicker than blood), I will willingly forsake my nation and refuse to defend it if it is completely given over to idolatry and wickedness. My love for my country is real but also conditional. This is exactly the view Calvin took of his native land, France, during the Reformation. Because France persecuted Protestants, Calvin was happy to be an expatriate.
5. Obviously church and state are distinct, God ordained institutions each with its own sphere and mission. But we still have to ask how our obligations to each of these institutions relate to one another. Maybe Wolfe answers this in his book - as I said, I’m not far into it yet. But let’s be clear at the outset: Every ecclesiology entails a certain political theology, and every political theology is also an ecclesiology. It is impossible to develop a biblically faithful political theology unless we understand that the church is the ultimate “holy nation,” that Christ rules over all things for the sake of his church, and that he has put his church at the center of history and society. Nations stand or fall in the long run based on how they treat the apple of God’s eye, the people he calls his own treasured possession.
6. Wolfe seems to think that nations have a duty to preserve themselves. But why? Does a pagan nation have an obligation to stay pagan? Is this a "natural duty," a way of honoring pagan ancestors? The spread of the gospel requires some measure of cultural inter-mixing. The Great Commission requires Christians to go to new nations (as immigrants?) to take the gospel to places it has not yet reached. A degree of multi-cultural cosmopolitanism and colonialism and globalism is an inescapable corollary to the Great Commission. This does not mean we deny the existence of nations, argue against borders, "celebrate diversity," etc. But it also means that treating nations as air tight containers that can have nothing to do with one another is a huge impediment to the mission of the church. It is crucial for Christian nationalists to acknowledge all of this, lest they devolve into unbiblical and anti-biblical positions, e.g., forbidding inter-racial or inter-ethnic marriages. My biggest fear for the Christian nationalist movement is that it will become a mirror image of the world's identity politics.
Like Wolfe, i think it's fine if an Italian grandma wishes her son would marry a nice Italian girl. But I am also sure the son is not in sin if he marries a non-Italian gal (especially since an Italian girl is not only ethnically Italian but almost certainly Roman Catholic as well -- the ethnic and the religious are almost certainly intertwined). I do not believe we have a blanket duty to preserve our cultural and ethnic heritage, except insofar that heritage is consistent with and reflects God's own view of what is true, good, and beautiful. The fact is, most of us in America today are the product of ethnic intermixing, and one could argue that we are better for it. Further, I would contend that we should be sending Reformed Protestant missionaries to Italy (to pick up on the earlier example), even though it means that Italy would be revolutionized in all kinds of ways if the missionaries were successful. Italy has no duty, natural or otherwise, to stay what she has been, traditionally Italian. Rather, she has a duty to reform her culture and faith according to the Word of God.
7. A few specific responses to commentators that I want to capture here:
A. One interlocutor said, “The church crosses ethnically and national boundaries. That does not therefore mean nations must.” True enough. But here’s the problem: Every Christian is also a citizen of a nation. If my church sends a missionary to Paganland, he not only goes there as a Christian but as an American, and he will be accused of not only spreading a spiritual message of salvation but also of colonialism because his preaching of the gospel will revolutionize that whole country if it is believed. It’s impossible for the church to cross ethnic and national boundaries without nations also doing so; missionary work always leads to ethnicities and nations getting mixed together.
B. One commentator quoted Wolfe: "Only the Christian nation is a complete nation” (p. 15). Sure, I agree a nation finds it’s completion in becoming Christian. But how does a pagan nation become Christian? How does the natural duty (according to Wolfe) to preserve ethnicity relate to the supernatural order brought in by the gospel? Or to frame it another way: Is there a natural duty to preserve ethnicity? Or to preserve Christian faith? It cannot be both. If a pagan nation has the duty to convert to Christ, it has the duty to change almost everything about itself (this has always happened when pagan nations convert). A non-Christian nation cannot open itself up to Christian faith without its whole way of life being threatened. This is why many nations outlaw Christian missionaries/missions. They know what’s at stake.
C. Again, I was challenged that no one believes nations are air tight containers. Perhaps, but there are some nations in the world today that practically function that way. But if nations are not air-tight containers, that means at least some openness to immigration (so missionaries can get in), inter-ethnic marriage, etc. Is Wolfe onboard with that? Are his kinist and kinist adjacent allies onboard with that?
D. I was asked if it is possible to preserve both ethnicity and Christian faith. Of course, the answer is yes, but it takes some explaining to get there. First, ethnicity is not just blood relations, it’s culture and customs, the whole way of life of a people. The gospel is transformative of everything it touches - when the gospel comes into an ethnicity, that ethnicity is going to be changed. No ethnicity is static. Some of the change will be due to the missionaries themselves who came from another culture, some of it will be due to intermarriage (which always ends up happening when cross cultural missions takes place), and the bulk of it is due to the power of the gospel itself as it leavens the ethnicity and reforms it according to Scripture. This is why many cultures do not allow missionaries - they do not want to be transformed in all the ways that openness to the gospel will bring transformation. They reject the gospel in order to preserve ethnicity as it exists. They are wrong, but at least they understand the issues. So here is the question: Is a culture that rejects missionaries fulfilling its “natural” duty to preserve itself? Where does the obligation for an ethnicity to become Christian come from? I would say that because Jesus is Lord every nation has the obligation to open itself up to his word and the transforming effect it will bring. Missions inevitably means at least some degree of ethnic change and ethnic inter-mixing. Missionaries to new places almost always get accused of colonialism for just this reason.
Of course, once a nation has been Christianized, it has the duty to remain Christian. A Christian nation might decide to be very open to Christians from other nations immigrating since they will likely be easy to assimilate. Muslims, not so much. An earlier commentator referenced Buchanan’s 80% rule of thumb: a nation needs to maintain 80% ethnic homogeneity in order to preserve itself and prevent cultural chaos. That might be prudent. A prosperous Christian nation should be hospitable and allow some measure of immigration, but obviously there must be limits. But what I am still dubious about is a “natural duty” for an ethnic group to preserve itself as such. That’s quite different from a biblical duty for a Christian nation to maintain its Christian ethos. I do not think ancient Hittites had a duty to preserve Hittite civilization and ethnicity. I believe they had to duty to convert. Once converted, they needed to stay faithful.
E. In another place someone seemed to jump from my question about Galatians to questions about the kind of world want our kids to grow up in, leeting people into our country who want to destroy it. This was my response: The problem with here is that (like so many others who commented on my original FB post) it completely sidesteps the question I started with, namely Galatians 2. I believe this response is driven by fear. It’s as if if we admit that Peter really was supposed to eat with believers of a different ethnicity, then it somehow follows that a nation must have open borders. I find that to be a hysterical response, to be honest. Galatians 2 is in the Bible and Christian nationalists need to show how it fits with their program, or else I will start to wonder what is “Christian” about Christian nationalism. The questions raised about “the kind of world we want our children to grow up in” are no doubt exactly the kind of questions the Judaizing Christians (like Peter briefly in Galatians 2) would have been raising (“we don’t want our kids growing up eating with Gentiles”). I think it’s entirely possible to faithfully exegete Galatians 2, but still advocate (on other grounds) that nations should limit immigration, defend their way of life (assuming it is a Christian way of life), enforce borders, etc. But texts like Galatians 2 help expose an ungodly kinist spirit that has arisen. "We don't have time to deal with the text of Scripture! We have a people and nation to defend!" This is is folly. I’m not accusing Wolfe of being a kinist; I take it on good authority he is not a kinist. But kinism and a kinist spirit has arisen in some quarters lately. It will do great damage if not held in check. It needs to be exposed and opposed. We need to let a text like Galatians 2 challenge us. Remember, Galatians 2 is about believers. It actually doesn’t say anything about eating with unbelievers -- much less does it establish some kind of immigration policy. But it certainly reveals attitudes and tendencies. The reaction my question provoked shows some people are running with an idea that is dangerous - and they don’t seem to want even the text of Scripture to put the brakes on it and perhaps add some nuance or qualification.
F. A lot of the responses focused on the need to defend and cultivate natural affection. I agree that natural affection, at least for white Christians, has been under attack. So I agree that we need to push back against white shaming, anti-Americanism, etc. At the same time, we need to remember that natural affection really is natural. Thus, even pagan show natural affection (as Jesus reminded us). Even Democrats and progressives show natural affection. Arguably, BLM and other identity-political movements are based on natural affection (or a distortion of natural affection). Joe Biden has so much natural affection for his son Hunter that one could rightly accuse Joe of making an idol of his family. And so on. Do not let natural affection squeeze out the supernatural love Christians are called to show.
G. Fielding another question about Galatians 2, I wrote this response: Peter segregated the church and communion table. He broke fellowship along ethnic lines. In modern times we might say Peter became a kinist - he wasn’t necessarily saying Gentiles could not be Christians (then again, he may have said that; cf Acts 15), but if they were, they’d have to have their own congregation and table. He wanted no ethnic intermixing. We can see this if we look at the argument Paul goes on to make which shows God’s intention to create a single family out of all the families of the earth. In the end, Abraham will inherit the world!
It does not follow from this that nations do not or should not exist any longer as geopolitical entities. But it does it mean that national identities have become relativized and secondary. Remember what Calvin said about his native land of France - he loved France but loved the church more.
We need to work out the political implications of the Eucharist. Peter did not cease being Jewish and the Gentile believers did not lose their ethnicity but they were required by the gospel to learn to love one another and be at peace when they came to the table together. Communion within the church leads to communion amongst (discipled) nations. Postmillennialism refutes kinism as much as any other biblical teaching
It seems to me Wolfe lets his Aristotelianism get in the way of the Bible in his project. The very existence of Western civilization is a refutation of kinism. Europe was once a bunch of warring people groups who hated each other and viewed each other as subhuman; the gospel made them into a cohesive culture (and without eradicating all traces of diverse ethnicity). America is the same way; America was formed out of disparate people groups who were ultimately joined together by their common faith. But think about this: there was no such thing as an American 500 years ago; now we are being told preserving our ethnicity as Americans is a natural duty. Is it? I would argue that America, like every other nation, is contingent and should only be preserved to the degree that she is faithful to God. If America is (or becomes) an enemy of the kingdom of God, we have no duty to preserve it any more than we would want to see ancient Hittite civilization preserved. Further, while we do have obligations to family and to fatherland, we have plenty of positive biblical examples of racial inter-mixing (eg, the mixed multitude that left Egypt) and inter-marriage (eg, Ruth and Boaz). If you go back far enough in history, every nation that exists today did not exist at some point - we all trace back to Adam. But kinists tell us foreigners will always be foreigners and can never enjoy full civic integration; we can never actually be made one across ethnic lines. This is contrary to the Torah which enjoins hospitality to foreigners in our midst and provided a pathway for most outsiders to become insiders; and it is contrary to nature since we all descend from one blood/one man.
There is a long, long history of using nationalist and kinist impulses to justify mistreating people who are different. I think this is something we would be wise to warn against. Further, if the kinist principle is pushed to the extreme (like likes like), it is incestuous. I know kinists disavow that, but that is the impulse if you really want to avoid all “strangers."
8. The label "Christian nationalism" carries all kinds of baggage. That does not mean we should avoid it, but we will need to carefully define it. What are the other options on the table? I would definitely prefer Christian nationalism to pagan nationalism, secular nationalism, Islamic nationalism, etc. But what Christian nationalism vs Christian localism or Christian imperialism or Christian globalism? I want a Christian everything. I want Christ's lordship acknowledged and obeyed in every place. I want every family, every street, every neighborhood, every village, every town, every city, every state, every nation, every empire, every planet, every solar system to obey Christ. So, sure, I am a Christian nationalist. But that the only kind of Christian I am, and as a category, it certainly does not exhaust my political theology.
9. Finally, the Christian nationalist movement seems to have created a weird set of oppositions and alliances. To wit: Wolfe seems to be chums with known kinists, but got his book published by Canon Press and plugged by Doug Wilson, who is a noted anti-kinist. Wolfe points to America's early history as a model of Christian nationalism; this would seem to make him favorable to classical liberalism. But advocates of a Christianized classical liberalism like Andrew Sandlin and Brian Mattson are very opposed to his project precisely because they see it as illiberal. Wolfe relies on similar sources as the Davenant men for his theological foundations, but at least one key player at Davenant, Alastair Roberts, seems very opposed to Wolfe. To further fill in the players on this field, we can point to Theopolis, which is ecclesiocentric, opposed to classical liberalism, and probably favors a reworked theonomy along the lines of what James Jordan has proposed. Theopolis is likely to suspicious of Wolfe's project because of its view of "nature" and ethnicity; it will be more cosmopolitan in outlook. Andrew Isker, who has written a fine little book on Christian nationalism with Andrew Torba, seems to like Theopolis and Wolfe's book. And then there's NatCon, which is post-liberal in a different way from Theoopolis, definitely not ecclesiocentric, but probably advocates for a natural law approach similar to some Davenant folks and Wolfe. Are you confused yet? To make it even crazier, there's a really good chance that the all of the above voted in a very, very similar way in the mid-term elections today!