I want to undertake a detailed review of a new book by Jason Stellman, one entitled Dual Citizens. There are a number of reasons for doing this, but those reasons should become increasingly manifest as we go along. The central reason is that I have become settled in my conviction that a particular form of dualism is paralyzing the modern Reformed church. And no, by paralysis, I do not mean that this dualism is hindering our ability to all rise up and vote Republican. But, like I said, my concerns should become obvious as we go along.
First, some background. Jason Stellman is the pastor of Exile Presbyterian Church, the man behind the blog De Regnis Duobus, and the author of this book, put out (inconsistently) by the publishing arm of Ligonier.
Let’s deal with some symbolism first. The header at the blog has a picture of Hitler and the pope getting along famously, and off to the right there is an American flag alongside a steeple — both pictures of how not to do things. And, of course, it is actually possible to find common ground quickly on how not to do things. I wouldn’t allow an American flag to be put up in front of a church sanctuary either, and I wouldn’t pal around with Hitler.
The problem arises with the implications of what we should be doing instead. These implications are not shown with the pictures. What would the symbolism have been if his header had a picture of Bonhoffer and Hitler? Or Ambrose and Theodosius? Or Alfred and Guthrum? Or John the Baptist and Herod? In short, when a prophet meets a king, or a godly king meets and ungodly one, there are possibilities other than the slapping of backs and the telling of a joke or two.
The difficulty is that if we separate them entirely, we could come up with something equally as offensive as the church making cozy with tyranny. Suppose we put Hitler way off to the left side of the header, pointing out his orders for the Holocaust, and then off to the right we put some high ecclesiastical churchman in a cape and beanie gazing off at the beatific vision in the middle distance, while listening to strains of music from the choir invisible. Anything offensive in that? Can the church ever be guilty of cultural sins of omission?
The name Exile Presbyterian does have the virtue of honesty, but it appears at the front end that the answer to this last question, given the premises, would have to be no. But let us work through the book, and try to find a consistent answer. At the end of the preface, Stellman thanks a friend as the “most consistent amillennialist” that he has ever met. I want to investigate what that looks like exactly, because in a world as screwed up as ours is, such consistency might not be that pretty at the end of the day.
Michael Horton wrote the Foreword, and the sentiment there can be summed up as “this world is not my home; I’m just passing through. The Christian life is a pilgrimage (which Horton aptly distinguishes from tourism), and he notes (also aptly) how the Word and sacrament, publicly ministered, “provide the right coordinates for our pilgrimage.” We have a precarious location at the intersection of this present evil age and the age to come (p. xi). This whole book is structured around the theme of “already and not yet.” And of course, every orthodox Christian holds to this, but there are still some important questions that we have to hang from this particular formulation. What is already? What is not yet?
In talking about this matter of two kingdoms, I have previously mentioned that I could be fine with that (in a Kuyperian sphere sovereignty kind of way), but I insist on knowing how many kings there are. The answer for Christians (of course) has to be that Christ is the king of all — but in contemporary two-kingdoms thought there is a tendency to grant this, but then to take with the left hand what was given with the right. For example, Stellman concludes his dedication by thanking his congregation, which faithfully listens to him preach and teach, “week in and week out, in one form or another, about the difference between the earthly kingdom of man and the heavenly kingdom of Christ” (emphasis mine). If there is only one king, shouldn’t this have been the earthly kingdom of Christ and the heavenly kingdom of Christ? More on this to come. Much more.
We can acknowledge this much agreement at least. Stellman says that eschatology “precedes everything” (p. xiii, emphasis his). Amen. Eschatology bears “directly on so many aspects of the Christian life” (p. xiii). Amen again — it bears on everything. And because it bears on everything, we need to be clear about everything.
Being clear about everything means that we should not allow ourselves to fall into false dilemmas.
“Do we American Christians obey the fourth commandment by worshiping on the Lord’s Day primarily to recapture the former glory of the United States, or do we withdraw from cultural activity on Sunday in order to demonstrate to the culture that, on this day at least, our heavenly citizenship eclipses our identities as citizens of the civil kingdom of man” (p. xiv).
That’s it? Those are our choices? Sabbath keeping to recover American glory or sabbath keeping to carve out at least one day for God, while leaving six to man? My choices are limited to whether America gets six days of my time or seven? Note also the juxtaposition (again) of heavenly citizenship under Christ and civil citizenship under man. Contrary to all this, it seems to me that our heavenly citizenship should eclipse our earthly citizenship all the time. I am not an American for six days and a Christian for one. Rather, I am a baptized Christian all the time, and a husband all the time, a father all the time, a neighbor all the time, and a citizen all the time. And I have to figure our the hierarchical layers of these responsibilities, according to Scripture, and, you guessed it, I have to do this all the time.
“Our dual citizenship, then, allows us to wait eagerly for eternal glory while seeing the temporal blessings of earth as gifts of God not to be feared but enjoyed” (p. xv).
But this is a mistatement of the problem, offering in quite a dramatic way. The problem is not the not yet of heavenly bliss and the already of beer. We are not comparing pleasure to pleasure, but rather ultimate responsibilities to temporal responsibilities. If it were just a matter of temporal pleasure, Stellman and I could come to an agreement quickly. We could both say grace over the beer, the mashed potatoes, the gifts of marriage, and so on. We could both receive all these blessings in the name of Jesus, and amen. But could we both fight Nazis in the name of Jesus? Could we contend for the unborn in the name of Jesus? Could we insist on honest weights and measures in the marketplace in the name of Jesus? If so, there goes the debate. If not, then why not? If Jesus is the king over this world, then why this strange superstition about not ever naming Him?
“The central thesis of this book is that the new covenant situates us in a tension between ‘the already’ on the one hand and the ‘not yet’ on the other” (p. xiii).
Like I said, we all agree with this, and we will continue to agree until someone suggests some concrete details for what is to be settled “already,” before the eschaton. The tension ought not to be between getting to confess the name of the Lord in the eschaton, and not getting to confess Him now. That is not the tension. The tension rather ought to be that of confessing Him faithfully now in the face of stiff opposition, and being welcomed by Him at the last day as one who did so. We are pilgrims, not Trappist monks. We get to say where we are going and why. We are privileged to relate every aspect of our behavior on the way to the fact that we are pilgrims. We are not called to tiptoe and mime our way across the public square.
“God has only one ‘nation,’ and that is the church” (p. xv).
Obviously, I would modify this somewhat. God has only one royal priesthood, only one holy nation, and that is the church (1 Pet. 2:9). And because of the glory radiating from this beautiful city, the kings of the earth bring their honor and glory into it. In this wonderful city, on the trees that grow on both sides of the river, what kind of leaves are grown? The kind that heal the nations (Rev. 22:2). How many nations does God have in this sense? All of them.