For many evangelicals today, secular means something very close to godless. The term secularization describes the impulse that drives the ACLU and other groups to expunge prayer from schools, to take down the Ten Commandments from courthouse walls, to pressure Christians to keep their beliefs private, to muzzle all religiously motivated efforts to curb abortion.
And yet, some Christians and many historians and sociologists view secularization as the genius of public Christianity, especially public Protestantism. In contrast to ancient Judaism and Islam, both of which imagine a public space dominated by a single religion, the church separates the sphere of shared life from the sphere of the church, reserving the sphere of the church for believers and regulating it by the demands of the gospel but defending the secular, neutral character of the public square.
John Milbank smells an equivocation in this argument. Western theology, he notes, has always acknowledged the reality of the saeculum, but this is understood in temporal rather than spatial terms. For Augustine, every earthly peace or justice, every political order, is relative to the absolute order, justice and peace of the eschaton. This secular age is a mixed age, during which wheat and tares grow up together. But this temporal secularity, Milbank argues, does not imply a morally neutral, secular public space, in part because, according to the classic view, both church and state partake of the conditions of the saeculum. The secular, Milbank insists, was not a natural order discovered when the veil of sacrality was lifted; the secular had to be created, and then defended, intellectually, politically, and even theologically. Early in the modern period, politicians and theorists formed, with the cooperation of theologians, the secular arena as a public space of amoral power politics, unrestrained economic self-interest, morally neutral social custom and structure. No word from God is permitted within this space, which is a playground where humans are freed to pursue their private happiness without any reference to ultimate ends.
But if Milbank is right, as I think he is, why are so many fooled into thinking that the gospel sows the seeds of secularization? Here, that great sociologist, the apostle Paul, can help.
But to see how, we need to begin at the end, with eschatology. According to Pauls’ letter to the Galatians, the Father sent his Son and Spirit into the world to raise up the Jews (“we,” v. 3) from childhood, which Paul characterizes as a state of slavery under the “elementary principles of the world” (stoicheia tou kosmou). For Paul, the gospel is an inherently eschatological message: The end has come, the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. The New Testament has many ways of saying this, most strikingly in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “Whoever is in Christ, Behold! A new creation!”
In Galatians 4, he talks about old and new by referring to the “elementary principles.” There is little agreement on what Paul means. Bondage to the stoicheia is tied in somehow to slavery to the “not-gods” (Gal. 4:8), and this and other considerations have led some to conclude that the stoicheia are the powers and principalities that Paul elsewhere says governed human beings in their minority. That may be; Israel received the law through angels (cf. Gal. 3:19). But the connection between Paul’s reference to stoicheia and his earlier description of the Torah as “schoolmaster” is more suggestive (Gal. 3:23). Bondage under the stoicheia correlates to being under the custody of the schoolmaster Torah. Israel was in bondage under the stoicheia when she observed the institutions of archaic religion, marking the bodies of male Hebrews with the sign of circumcision and submitting to the dietary, sacrificial, purity regulations imposed by Torah. Life under stoicheia is life in the highly regulated childhood that Israel was always destined to outgrow in the fullness of time. That is the bondage from which Jews are delivered.
Paul is not only talking about Jews, however. “We” (Jews) were in bondage until the one who came born under the Torah, but elsewhere in Galatians 4 he refers to Gentiles (“you,” vv. 6, 8) who did not know God but who have also been liberated by receiving the Son and Spirit. In his letter to the Romans, Paul flattens the difference of Jew and Gentile by saying that all are “under sin.” Paul flattens out the difference between Jew and Gentile again in Galatians, but in a different manner: All are slaves “under the stoicheia.” For Gentiles as much as Jews, this bondage involved animal sacrifice, keeping days, the avoidance of contamination, taboos, holy places, and sacred temple.
According to Paul, the gospel brings an end to this bondage, for both Jews and Gentiles. Wherever the gospel is received, individuals and groups are liberated from this ancient form of religion and are delivered into a new religious world. Guy Stroumsa makes a similar point when he described the epochal significance of the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. “It was the destruction of the Temple,” he writes, “that activated the slow-overly slow-transformation of religion to which we owe, among other things, European culture.” With the fall of the temple, the Jews “offered the example of a society that had succeeded in conserving its ethnic and religious identity, even after the destruction of the only temple where daily sacrifices could be offered.” Such a “sudden disappearance of sacrifices in a community represents a deep transformation of the very structures of its religious life.” Christians were also a people without a fixed temple, without sacrifice. Like the dispersed Jews, they were an entirely new sort of people, teaching an entirely new sort of religion.
Incarnation and Pentecost are Paul’s coordinates in Galatians 4. The coming of the Son and Spirit liberated Jew and Gentile once for all from the bondage of the stoicheia. But history didn’t stop in the first century. Something happens whenever and wherever Jesus’ victory and the Spirit’s coming is proclaimed among and received by individuals and groups who still live in childhood. Jesus inaugurated the new creation on the cross and in the resurrection, but the reality of that victory breaks through in place after place when the Spirit comes in the preaching of the gospel. Pentecost happened once, but Pentecostal events occur throughout the early history of the Church, whenever and wherever the Spirit falls. Luke traces the spreading ripples of the first Pentecost by recording similar events in Samaria, among Gentiles, and to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 2, 10-11). The gospel, in short, announces a “baptism” out of bondage into freedom, a baptism that liberates cultures from archaic social and religious structures organized by distinctions of holy/profane and clean/unclean, from worries about unclean foods, from distinctions between impure Gentiles and pure Jews (or vice versa), from the fear of contagion, from repeated animal sacrifice.
Stroumsa says that the conflict between Christian apologists like Origen and pagans Celsus is deeper than a conflict between religions; it’s a conflict about two divergent views of what religion is. Celsus cannot understand Origen because for Celsus religion simply is adherence to stoicheia. For Celsus and many of his contemporaries, a religion without the stoicheia can only be a form of atheism. Celsus mistakes the “baptism” as a secularization.
Sociologists and historians have been making the same mistake ever since. Christianity does not promote “secularity” in the modern sense. Where Christianity has become dominant, Christians have always sought to reshape public life, law, social order, custom, and economic life, in accord with the demands of the gospel. They have not considered public life a safe-zone, free from the influence of the gospel. But the gospel does challenge and overthrow the institutions and patterns of the old world. Wherever the gospel arrives, sacred sites lose their sacredness, the gods go silent, the religious ceremonies that encrust daily life go by the wayside, blood and sacrifice cease. When the good news gets to the scattered tribes of the Amazon, or unevangelized peoples of Africa or Asia, it comes as an announcement of a new exodus, a baptism that leads out of Egypt into a new world, guided by the pillar of the Spirit.
Peter J. Leithart is Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow.