At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course (Luke 13:31–32; ESV)
“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21).
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36; ESV).
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for she is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, tan avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Romans 13:1–7; ESV).
But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to Caesar.” Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” said he, “you will hear him.”
So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in (Acts 25:21–23; ESV)
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor (1 Peter 2:13–17; ESV)
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior (1 Timothy 2:1–3; ESV)
We seem to live in a Malthusian age, i.e., an age of increasing scarcity or perhaps fear of scarcity, where concern over how to divide an economic (and environmental) pie of limited size (called a “zero sum game”) has replaced the idea of expanding the economic pie, as it were.
The original modern theorist of increasing scarcity and over population (whose ideas were influential in the 1970s during the Carter “malaise” years) was Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834). Malthus theory of future scarcity and over population helped to prepare the ground for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Malthus’ fears, in the context of Darwin’s theory, with the ugliness of early urban industrialism, combined with Thomas Hobbes’ (1588–1679) theory that without a powerful central state (a “leviathan”) life would devolve into a dystopian “state of nature,” a state of war of “all against all,” in which life would be “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short” helped to propel the modern creation of centralizing state. Hobbes and Malthus’ theories were united by a common fear about the future. Hobbes explicitly rejected the Christian account of God and man and intentionally turned the covenant of works on its head.
Malthus or Althusius?
There was an alternative to this dark picture that was informed by an Augustinian and Calvinist doctrine of post-lapsarian human depravity but which distinguished between various spheres and webs of human relationships in a series of concentric circles. We might call him the original Reformed theorist of sphere sovereignty. That theorist was Johannes Althusius (1557–1638). Born in Westphalia (Germany) just after the Peace of Augsburg, Althusius spent his life under the shadow of religious and political tensions which finally broke out into open warfare in 1618. He died a decade before peace came to Europe but those tensions and that war left their marks.
An orthodox, confessional Reformed Christian, Althusius was not a minister. He was a legal scholar who taught first in the Academy in Herborn (whose first rector was Caspar Olevianus, 1536–87, though the academy is sometime dated from 1592) and served for many years as a (ruling) elder in the Reformed church in Emden (Friesland) and as a political leader there. A great deal has been written about Althusius in the last few decades. Alain de Benoist has written a helpful survey of the literature and Daniel J. Elazar and Charles McCoy and others have pointed to Althusius as one of the sources of 18th century political federalism. In 2004 the English historian John Coffey offered this summary of Althusius’ “relational” political theory.
In 1603 Althusius produced the first edition of his great treatise, Politics Methodically Digested and Illustrated from Profane [secular] and Sacred [biblical] Examples(Politica methodice digesta atque exemplaris sacris et profanis illustrata). The work would go through three editions between 1604–1614 and was published in an abridged English translation by Frederick S. Carney in 1964. It’s available in hardcover and online here and here.
It’s been a while since I read Politica but I thought that, in the wake of the election, and in light of the sense of confusion and uncertainty that I am hearing from people (via email and phone calls) it might be well to look at Althusius to see what we can learn from him. He is interesting and useful because he illustrates the relative sophistication of Reformed political theory at the turn of the 17th century, on the cusp of the early modern world. He benefited from the earlier work by Theodore Beza (De iure magistratuum; 1574) and the pseudonymous, Vindication Against Tyrants (1579) but he moved beyond their occasional tendency (their theology not withstanding) to treat the post-canonical state as if it were equivalent to national Israel.
Althusius actually attempted to formulate a theory of human relations on the basis of the natural, created, divinely established order. He attempted to establish from nature (and confirm from Scripture) what the most basic social unit is and then he reasoned from that natural unit of association out to other social associations. He did his work in light of medieval legal texts and theories, the Reformation (e.g., Calvin), the development of covenant theology (Olevianus et al), and all this during the time Reformed orthodox theology was becoming more sophisticated.
We’ll be taking a look at Althusius’ Politica in the coming weeks as an antidote to some of the angst to which one might be tempted. As a Reformed theorist who appreciated natural law Althusius will be an interesting alternative to some of the approaches being touted today.
Athusius’ Use Of Natural Law
Thanks to Mark for reminding me about the terrific chapter in John Witte Jr’s volume The Reformation of Rights on Johannes Althusius. He places our author in the context of the Dutch rebellion against Spain. The crown was waging a bloody war of religious repression against the Reformed in the Netherlands, during which time about 12,000 Reformed Christians were martyred for the gospel. The problem the Reformed in the French Wars of Religion (from 1562) and by the Reformed in the Netherlands was how to justify resistance against tyranny. Calvin had theorized (Institutes 4.20) that “lesser magistrates” had divinely endowed authority to put tyrants in check. Can that right be transferred or does it belong in some way to a broader body, even to the people? In the Netherlands, nearly two centuries before the American Revolution, the Estates General invoked natural law (143) as the basis for their right of self-determination over against Spanish and Romanist civil and religious tyranny.
Witte provides a brief but helpful biographical sketch of Althusius. There’s a minor error (151) in the date of the Heidelberg Catechism. It’s 1563 not 1568. He notes that Althusius drew from the Protestant resistance theory including Beza, the pseudonymous “Brutus,” and various Dutch writers. He was also well read in classical legal sources. He thought that under the rubric natural law they could be harmonized with the biblical teaching of natural law (156).
Althusius offered: (1) a ‘demonstrative theory’ of natural law that focused on the concordance between Christian and classical, biblical and rational teachings of law and authority; and (2) ‘a symbiotic theory of human nature’ that focused on the natural and necessary attachments of the person to God, neighbor, and society (155).
The Reformed had universally accepted the divisio triplex of the Mosaic law: moral, civil, and ceremonial. The moral law of Scripture, summarized in the decalogue (ten commandments) was regarded as an expression of the natural law. They are universal (164). The Israelite civil laws were temporary, typological expressions of that law for the Israelites. Hence they were regarded as “expired” and “abrogated” (WCF 19) except insofar as they serve as a witness to universal natural civil principles (“general equity”). Of course, the ceremonial, religious, ritual, religious laws were understood likewise to have been fulfilled and abrogated by Christ. Thus, not all biblical law is equivalent to “natural law” (163). The Mosaic civil laws were the “positive law” of the Jewish state. Althusius picked up this distinction and attempted to work out a theory of civil life that was more consistent with this notion than had been expressed by the earlier theorists.
As I mentioned in Part 1 the earlier resistance theorists had articulated the threefold division (Beza wrote a treatise defending the distinction) but they had not always been consistent in treating Israel’s civil polity as a temporary, typological (and in that sense unique) civil polity. In their zeal to urge the civil magistrate to restrain themselves from persecuting the Reformed they drifted into treating the magistrate as if he were a new David and e.g., France as a post-canonical Israel. Althusius attempted to work out a theory of human organizations that was grounded in creation.
According Witte, for Althusius, “we can know the norms of the natural law if we study both Scripture and tradition, revelation and reason very carefully” (159). The Scripture gives a fuller account of the natural law but it is substantially the same as the natural law. What is in Scripture “cannot be a new form of natural law, for God would not and could not contradict the natural law that he already revealed to us in and through our human nature” (ibid). “God and Scripture have rewritten the natural law for believers…reason and experience have rewritten this natural law for non-believers to discover” (ibid).
For this reason a common body of law is found across time and in various communities, even those who “have had no contact with each other” (160). All communities know from nature that certain functions must be discharged and Althusius saw considerable uniformity in the way the particulars came to expression (ibid). This uniformity is the ground of “common laws” and the “laws of nations.” (see also pp, 161–63).
One more point. Witte notes that, as we will see, Althusius defined freedom in terms of the absence of restraint.
There is a freedom of the body by which the civil law allows a person to use his bodily members to do or conduct anything in a way that is both agreeable and permissible. This is given to us as a natural right, unless obvious exceptions are made. (Johannes Althusius, Dicaeologicae libri tres, totum et universum jus, quo utimur, methodice complectentes [Frankfurt, 1618], 1.25.7) in ibid, 166.
It is significant that, for Althusius, freedom relative to civil authorities is defined as the relative absence of restraint. I have heard it suggested that such a definition of freedom is an Enlightenment conception. Althusius, however, was not an Enlightenment figure. He was a pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment figure. He didn’t assume the sort of autonomy of human reason that the Enlightenment figures tended to assume. He did not place himself over Scripture. He did not regard himself as a “Enlightened” relative to benighted, ignorant pre-Enlightenment folk. He wasn’t a deist. In short, he wasn’t Hobbes. He was not Locke. He was Rousseau or Franklin or Jefferson. His roots were in Christian (medieval and Reformation) understandings of God and man. In contrast to the Enlightenment he did not begin with an autonomous self. Where Descartes (d. 1650) would begin with “I” (cogito) but with God and his creational order.
The second thing that makes this definition interesting is that I have encountered some resistance to this definition of freedom. Some have suggested that the only way Christians can define freedom is something like “conformity to the divine will.” That definition may work in some contexts but does it work in the civil context? Does it account for the distinctions that Althusius assumed?
The intellectual framework behind his attempt to describe the divinely established universal pattern of human relations was the Christian account of creation. There is a state of nature but it wasn’t what Hobbes thought it was. Hobbes had turned the Reformed view on its head. He had read dystopia of the fall back into nature. Locke had gone in a more Pelagianizing (and rationalist) direction by downplaying the effects of fall. Althusius, by contrast, sought to account for nature, the fall, grace, and providence. We’ll see how it plays out in Politica but it will be interesting to find out whether and how Althusius employed the Reformed distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, between law and gospel. At the very time Althusius was working out his theories the Reformed orthodox were polishing and elaborating the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. These doctrines would have been in his ears regularly in church and, as an elder and a teacher in the university, he would have worked with them.
Free Conscience And Free Exercise
According to John Witte Jr., Althusius did consider the question of religious liberty, whether a private person has the right to “alterm amend, or even abandon” the duties prescribed under the first table (the first four commandments) of the Decalogue. Do civil officials have the authority to “propound, prescribe, or at least prefer one formulation of religious duties over another?” (The Reformation of Rights, 171). This was not a purely theoretical question. The Spanish crown was vigorously seeking to subdue his Dutch subjects and to impose upon them all strict adherence to the dogma and decrees of the Council of Trent. If God has established the magistrate (and about that there was no debate) and if Christian citizens must submit to the magistrate, even an evil one such as Philip II (again, about which there was no debate), then how could Althusius avoid the apparently inescapable conclusion that Spain had the authority to impose Romanism on a reluctant Dutch population?—and it was not only Protestants who were reluctant, some Dutch Romanists resented Spain as well.
Althusius resolved these questions by defending the absolute liberty of conscience (libertas conscientiae) but insisting on only a qualified right of religious exercise (ius relgionis exercitium (ibid, 171). See Johannes Althusius, Dicaeologicae libri tres, totum et universum jus, quo utimur, methodice complectentes [Frankfurt, 1618] 1.25.8; idem, Politica, 28.14, 37–73).
He saw the “the absolute liberty of conscience as the natural corollary to the absolute sovereignty of God….” (ibid, 171). Only God is Lord of the conscience. No magistrate can usurp that authority. He drew that inference from the prologue of the Decalogue. Only God can change the heart. No human may coerce another to act against his conscience. As Witte has it, “faith must be persuaded, not commanded.” This was no assertion of Modernist, Enlightenment autonomy. “Fides suadenda non imponenda” (The faith is for persuading not for imposing)) was the slogan of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153).
The magistrate has a duty to preserve this natural, divinely given liberty (relative to the state), this “libertas animi.” In so doing the magistrate is not threatening Christianity but rather “testifying to its “cogency” (ibid).
Freedom of conscience was not, however, the same as free exercise. That, for Althusius, would lead to the erosion of the integrity of society. Once more, Althusius was not an 18th-century, Enlightened advocate of the free exercise. Nevertheless, he was aware of the religious pluralism of the Netherlands. Some provinces had a strong Romanist presence and others a strong Arminian contingency.
Witte observes, “Althusius was all for the state establishment of Calvinism…. This gave Calvinist churches special political protection and patronage and gave Calvinist ministers special privileges and prerogatives in the community” (ibid, 173). This was his application of the first table. Jews, Romanists, and others, however, were to be tolerated. Jews could not build synagogues. They had to remain segregated from the Christian community and had to wear badges. This was only better by degrees from pogroms, banishment, and worse. Roman Catholics, Witte notes, fared a little better. They were to be tolerated but could not have their own buildings or Roman worship. Of course, in the case that Philip had been bent on re-imposing Roman worship by force it is easier to see how the Reformed might be less tolerant of the re-introduction of Romanism where it had been eliminated. Only those heretics who are “open and notorious” should face civil punishment (ibid, 174). As “churlish” (Witte’s word) as Althusius’ theory might seem today it was, in its own time, fairly “generous” (ibid).
There was in Althusius’ relatively liberal (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) approach to religious liberty and the application of the first table a certain tension. The potential for free exercise seems to have been implicit in Althusius’ theory but he still saw the application of the first table through the eyes of Constantine, as it were. After 1648, after the Peace of Westphalia, and through the course of the 18th century the principle of civil enforcement weakened and was replaced, at least in the American colonies, with the free exercise clause.
The Most Basic Social Unit
According to John Witte Jr, for Althusius,
the “most elementary and most essential association of any commonwealth is the marital household—husband and wife, parents and children, who are sometimes joined by servants, grandparents, grandchildren, and other relatives” (p. 184). He called this a “domestic commonwealth.” This is the association or society on which every other society is built and it is grounded in creation, in the divinely established order, the nature of things.
The family is also a voluntary association. We were created to be social, to be relation to other image bearers (humans), to be attracted (male and female) to each other, to procreate (185). Marriage, however,is an act of the will, a “volitional contract” (ibid) between a man and a woman when they’ve reached the age of consent. This marital household is the “bedrock of law, politics, and society” (186). It is the “first school of justice and mercy, piety and charity, virtue and citizenship’ ibid). The head of this most basic social unit is the paterfamilias. He leads theextended family, which is still a private association.
As a member of the family, each has certain rights which are theirs by divine intention—the right “to enjoy affection, love, and good will” (Althusius) of the family and to be assured of natural affection and support when needed (see p. 186 for citations to Althusius). The private, natural (creational) societies form voluntary associations (collegia) with others.
These voluntary associations are businesses, guilds, corporations, schools and the like (ibid). These voluntary associations may be “secular” or “religious.” For Althusius, the word “secular” did not carry the negative connotations it has come to carry in 21st century America. It simply meant “not overtly religious.” It didn’t mean “rebelling against God” or even “not under God’s sovereignty.”
For Althusius everything occurs under divine sovereignty but not everything is administered under the same heading or in the same sphere. These private associations are governed by the creational pattern ordained by God. Althusius described this pattern as “natural law.” He assumed that it was discernible in the nature of things. These associations are corporations, or corporate persons
(187). The members of these entities have dual roles, that as a private individual and that as a member of the corporation. The responsibilities in these spheres are complementary. Civil associations result when “groups of private (natural or voluntary) associations covenant together to form public (political) associations.
The simplest such publication associations and the earliest to develop are hamlets and villages, then larger towns,counties, and cities” (187). These smaller civil associations “eventually covenant together” to form larger associations (e.g., provinces or territories) and, in turn, they may form even broader associations such as commonwealths (ibid, 187–88).
Althusius appealed to the development from the Abrahamic household to the civil polity of Israel as an example of the formation of such political associations and commonwealths. He appealed to that history to justify his doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” (189), the notion that the people are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” (language is from the Declaration but exactly what Althusius was saying) and one of those is the right to elect representatives to govern themselves.
This means that, insofar as any commonwealth is divinely instructed by the law of nature has civil power, it can transfer this power to another or to others, who, under the title of kings, princes, consuls, or other magistrates, assume the direction of its common life (Althusius, Politica cited in Witte, The Reformation of Rights, 189)
Althusius argued that even God respected this right to popular sovereignty when, even though he had every right to govern them directly himself, as he had done for hundreds of years, he “yielded [as it were-rsc] to their choice” for a king (ibid, 189). God administers the civil realm through the people and through their elected representatives. The people, Althusius wrote, following Beza and Calvin, can exist without the sovereign, but the sovereign cannot exist without the people (ibid). Thus, the formation of these civil associations never alienates the people from their fundamental, creational, divinely endowed right to rule themselves. Each association retains its right of self-rule relative to the higheror broader association (ibid, 193).
Entering into a relation with a broader association is not an alienation of the sovereignty of the smaller association “but a confirmation of it” (ibid). This federal, constitutionalism was his bulwark against the rising tide of royal absolutism and “nationalist sovereignty” (194).
With regard to political action: American Christians (particularly evangelicals) must get over the microwave mentality. We need to think more in terms of camp fires and cook outs. It takes a long time to make a decent meal outdoors and it might all go wrong . . . . If we substituted the camp fire for the microwave we might also be useful by becoming more critical of reigning cultural paradigms. For example, many American Christians are suburbanites. They make take the existence of suburbs for granted but should we? . . . . Christianity is not middle-class American suburbia nor is it neo-Romanticism about “the city.” Where is the evangelical, missional passion for rural America?
1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?
RSC: I doubt that I’ve made any contribution to this question. My interest is partly historical, partly biblical-exegetical, theological, and pastoral. I have an academic interest in the history of Reformed theology and ethics and particularly in the way the classical Reformed theologians (and confessional churches) understood creation, natural law, and the intersection between those categories and Reformed soteriology and understanding of redemptive history. As a pastor I have seen the damage done to the visible church by confusing the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world.
2. Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers. Do you agree or disagree?
RSC: If I understand the question correctly, yes, I agree. What Christ has commissioned the visible church, as an institution, to do is one thing; and what he has commissioned the Christian to do is rather broader. This distinction goes back at least to the early Reformation’s doctrines of vocation and its distinction between the two kingdoms. It also has roots in St Augustine’s distinction between the two cities. Christians have a dual citizenship. St Paul says that we have a heavenly citizenship (Phil 3:20) but we also have an earthly citizenship (Rom 13:1-7). If we understand that the Israelite theocracy was fulfilled by Christ then we also understand that God has made no special covenant with any nation. The visible church is the Israel of God (Gal 6:16). The responsibility of the visible church is to be the principle representative of the kingdom of God (the heavenly kingdom) on the earth (Matt 16; Matt 18). Historically considered, the church as an institution has had very difficult time fulfilling the responsibilities given to her by our Lord: administration of Word, sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline (Belgic Confession article 29).
Christians, however, as members of the common kingdom, under God’s sovereign rule, have civil responsibilities. They may form private associations (outside the visible church) to address social issues which are common to believers and non-believers. They may and should speak, as Christians, to social questions. Because we confess that, as Creator and Redeemer, Christ is Lord of all and because we seek to live out our faith daily in God’s good creation and active providence in the world, we cannot withdraw from it. The great error of “world flight” is that it denies the essential goodness of creation. The essential error of the theology of glory is that confuses heaven with earth. Confessional Protestants have a doctrine of vocation that calls the Christian to engage the God’s world to the benefit of his neighbor and the glory of God while always distinguishing this world from the world to come.
3. Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?
RSC: My politics have evolved considerably during my lifetime. I was raised a liberal (Humphrey) Democrat. I was catechized on the Sunday paper and local politics. When other children we in Sunday School I was putting up yard signs. In university I read political philosophy and the combination of Plato, Augustine, Calvin, and Hobbes led me to a sort of democratic socialism. Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction was helpful in alerting me to the theological errors (and cardinal sins) inherent in socialism. Plato (or neo-Platonism) is wrong. The Spirit-matter dualism is an error. It is not Paul’s (Holy) Spirit-flesh (sin) dualism. Jesus is true God and true man. It was Calvin’s doctrine of creation and natural law and the epistemological (common sense) realism of the Reformed orthodox that began to push me and my Augustinian view of sin in a more libertarian direction. Along the way I have been influenced, in different ways, by the early fathers (e.g., Ad Diognetum), Augustine, Eric Voeglin, Hannah Arrendt, C. S. Lewis, W. F. Buckley, and Dorothy Sayers among others. From Reformed orthodoxy I learned the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. In theological terms, civil life, whether in local communities or in international relations, is a covenant of works (“do this and live”) and not a covenant of grace. The administration of the covenant of grace (“for God so loved the world”) belongs to the visible church not to the magistrate.
4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?
RSC: In this world one either spends time or money (and sometimes both). Even when the latter is lacking there is a great deal that might be done on the local level and Christians are willing to get involved and spend the time. Political capital, like economic capital is accumulated over time. Local politics is about involvement and taking risks. American Christians (particularly evangelicals) must get over the microwave mentality. We need to think more in terms of camp fires and cook outs. It takes a long time to make a decent meal outdoors and it might all go wrong. It might not taste good but it’s necessary. If Christians involve themselves in the local school board or local council races or even on advisory committees these are inexpensive ways to become involved in local civil life.
If we substituted the camp fire for the microwave we might also be useful by becoming more critical of reigning cultural paradigms. For example, many American Christians are suburbanites. They make take the existence of suburbs for granted but should we? We are all creatures of a given time and place but being Christians gives us the opportunity to step outside our own time and place a bit and to see it more objectively, more critically. Christianity is not middle-class American suburbia nor is it neo-Romanticism about “the city.” God may be glorified in both places but he may also be glorified in rural settings. Where is the evangelical, missional passion for rural America? Re-engaging rural America will not happen quickly. It might take decades but there are opportunities all through the American Heartland for those who want to engage civil life on a micro-level with limited resources.
5. How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?
RSC: When I was in seminary I recall a fellow-student with theonomic inclinations dismissing Romans 13 as if it were insignificant. It seems to me that if one finds Romans 13 insufficient or insignificant for ones understanding of the Christian’s role in civil life then one is likely asking the wrong questions or beginning with the wrong assumptions. One should ask, “why do I find Romans 13 unsatisfactory?” Could it be that one is seeking outcomes or working with expectations that St Paul did not? Americans have invoked and abused Jesus’ teaching about a “city shining on a hill” (Matt 5:14). The American colonies were not that city. Jesus is the light of the world and his Christians are the “light of the world” (Matt 5:14) by virtue of their union with him. It’s important to note, however, how Paul called us to be light in the world principally by living a “peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim 2:2). That American Christians bristle at God’s calling Romans 13, for submission to established authorities, says a great deal about the continuing influence of the revolutionary spirit. Paul clearly teaches at all authorities, even Nero, are instituted by God. This is why Calvin was so careful to stipulate that popular revolution is immoral, that it is the vocation of the “lesser magistrates” to hold civil rulers in check. Paul understood what he was saying. Christians suffered under Nero and they would suffer more grievously in centuries to come. I think the treatise Ad Diognetum (c. 155 AD possibly by Polycarp) is most a instructive application of Romans 13. His argument was that the Christians were false accused of being seditious. He responded (5:.1-11):
For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…For while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. The live in their own countries but only as nonresidents, they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.
Would that the same could be said of us today.
6. How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics? Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?
RSC: I think these are two distinct, if related, questions. The Westminster Divines (chapter 19) answered the first (regarding the contemporary application of Deuteronomy) by reminding us that there are three aspects to the Mosaic law: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The Decalogue (Deut 5) is a typological, Israelite, summary of the moral, creational law. It is permanent and it like the other two aspects of the Mosaic law (613 Mitzvoth) have been fulfilled by Christ. The divines, however, were at pains to point out that the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law have been fulfilled. What remains is the moral law, given in creation, that binds all people in all times. The “general equity” of the Mosaic civil law continues to be of use to us but we should understand, as your question suggests, that the Israelite civil law was not absolutely unique and thus though there are general principles to be discerned it is because those principles are grounded in creational (natural) justice which existed prior to Israel and which continue to bind civil magistrates two millennia after Christ fulfilled them. The principal function of the Pentateuch (Torah) generally is to point us to Christ. Only secondarily and indirectly does it provide guidance to contemporary civil life and even then only in general terms.
Proverbs is important for the civil life of the Christian because it was intended to serve as an introduction to wisdom, as a collection of maxims that, properly understood and skillfully applied, will result in benefit to the one who obeys them. Ultimately, of course, wisdom points to Christ, the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18). Proximately, however, Christians as much as anyone need practical wisdom to live life “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). Inasmuch as evangelical political engagement has lacked a lot of wisdom for the last several decades one might say that we are much more in need of Proverbs (and perhaps Ecclesiastes and Job!) than we are Deuteronomy.
7. Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment. Are all three of these to be implemented by believers? Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?
RSC: Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen have both properly pointed us to Daniel as a good model for Christian social and political engagement. We are not in Canaan. We are in exile. Daniel did not seek to overturn the established social or civil order. He served God faithfully within it, within the limits established by God’s Word. This is how it has always been. When the magistrate called Daniel to transgress God’s law, Daniel refused and accepted the consequences. The paradox of Christian political influence is that it will most likely come not through the acquisition of power but by the quiet (and perhaps therefore conspicuous) adherence to God’s Word that transcends all political and civil authority.
8. If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics. This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work. But am I doing the right thing? Should I be bolder?” How would you respond? Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?
RSC: Of course a church planter must be wise. He must know his setting, his limitations, but he must also know and be faithful to the whole counsel of God. I doubt that any pastor is called to preach on “political” topics, depending upon how one defines political. Preaching Romans 13 or 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Peter 2:13-17 is not “political.” If it is true, as the Reformed have thought, that we live in two kingdoms simultaneously, then the preacher is called to proclaim the advent of God’s Kingdom in Christ (Mark 1:15), to call everyone everywhere to repentance and faith but he is also called to preach and teach God’s Word as it applies to our life as citizens of the creational kingdom, which we share with those who do not confess Christ. Christians want to know how they should conduct themselves at work, with the non-Christian co-workers, neighbors, and family and God’s Word speaks to those things. If the word “politics” refers to partisan politics, to calls to elect this candidate or to vote this way or that, then no preacher, let alone a church planter, should be speaking to those things that way from the pulpit. A minister is not called to be an emissary from the civil kingdom. There are plenty of those. He is called to serve as an ambassador from the Kingdom of God to this world and he is to announce the in-breaking of that kingdom, in Christ, in Word and sacrament, into this world.
9. What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology? The best book?
RSC: Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith and David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms are two excellent places to begin to think through these issues. Ken Myers’ Mars Hill Audio is indispensable for continuing to grow in this area.
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