David VanDrunen has written a piece on God’s gift of the civil government, entitled Ministers of God for Our Good: God’s Gift of Civil Government. It originally appeared in Evangelium, Vol. 13, Issue 5, and is now available on Westminster Seminary California’s site.
Readers familiar with VanDrunen’s work in social ethics know that he is an advocate of Natural Law, Two Kingdom theory, and Kline’s Common Grace Order. Readers also are aware of the politically tyrannical times in which we live, times in which the pertinent political decisions no longer are about proverbial but important issues such as abortion and gay marriage, but whether preachers will be soon able to faithfully preach against sodomy from a book that may be a “hate book”, or whether Christians can evangelize Jews. Therefore, an essay about an institution that God has appointed for the Christian’s good could only purport to assuage legitimate worry over our leviathan state. Yet an essay written from VanDrunen’s doctrinal perspective leaves one puzzled as to the solution to our political problems. In the end the reader is not left with any comfort that VanDrunen’s version of the biblical magistrate provides proper restraints against the evil the State might impose. Ponder this last paragraph:
As the Scriptures teach and as the church has acknowledged, civil magistrates are ordained by God and to be received by us as a gift from him. Of course, civil magistrates often fail in the tasks entrusted to them, and thus it is helpful to close this article by remembering that civil authority is legitimate, but always limited. Though civil authority is a good, it is not an unmitigated or ultimate good. Though it suppresses wickedness in the world to some degree, it can never provide salvation. Thus, even while Christians remain humble and obedient citizens in whatever country they have been placed, they remember that their true citizenship is in heaven. Like the exiled Israelites who looked forward to being rescued from Babylon and returned to the Promised Land after seventy years, Christians today look forward to the time when Christ returns and establishes that eternal kingdom in which righteousness and peace dwell. Until then, we gratefully receive God’s provision of civil government, with whatever justice, peace, and prosperity accompanies.
VanDrunen is right that Christians may serve as civil magistrates and that God uses them to do good for his people and for all people generally. But magistrates often do evil to Christians and we deserve to know what we may do about it. The reader only learns from VanDrunen that the State is a legitimate institution whose officers are appointed by God, that we ultimately have our citizenship in heaven, and that as we pilgrim here under the current tyrant we may but pray for him and strive to live in peace–under his tyranny. Strangely, but to VanDrunen’s credit, he does not shy away from this subject’s N.T. locus classicus, Romans 13, which elaborates the magistrate office as a minister of God that avenges God’s wrath against true evil, and with the Christian’s good in mind. One would think, then, that he should expound on the topics that this text broaches–namely, the body of law the magistrate should administer, how he distinguishes good from evil, and a doctrine of Christian civil disobedience when the magistrate doesn’t do the church good. But the essay fails to deliver on these questions and issues as much as it fails to offer civic hope for the gospel. A “proper perspective on political life” for the Christian in New Covenant times living under political tyranny turns out to be blank-check obedience to the current king as we wait for heaven, for there is no recourse regarding a divine sanction and blueprint for Christian political reform.
The reason for such despondency is that VanDrunen believes in the myth of religious neutrality, at least in the public square. What follows is a tour through VanDrunen’s essay to trace how this religious neutrality affects each attempted biblical justification to neutralize the idea of a Christian society.
After a few introductory paragraphs, VanDrunen dives into a Christian approach to government. Regarding the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus written in the mid-second century, VanDrunen writes
The very fact that this letter is addressed to “his excellency, Diognetus,” is significant, for it suggests that the author considers high government officials worthy of honor and worthy recipients of appeal. The author of this letter claims that Christians are in many ways indistinguishable from the rest of the world in terms of external appearances. Christians do not live in their own cities, speak their own language, or follow their own customs. Instead, they obey established laws and acknowledge the constitution of their own commonwealth. Yet, in a rather paradoxical series of statements, the author explains that Christians, though belonging to civil society in many important ways, at the same time do not belong to it. They are citizens of this world, yet also foreigners, because they are also citizens of heaven. Though they work and live in civil society, the ultimate meaning of their lives far transcends it.
Why it is “significant” that early Christians honored the office of civil leaders is unknown. Every party to this debate agrees that God appoints civil leaders and they should draw respect by their constituents. A suspicion arises that this is not mentioned to establish the premise that magistrates are legitimate, but rather to hint that any magistrate–no matter his character, policies, or how he took office–is legitimate and worthy of honor.
In the rest of the paragraph (and essay) we see VanDrunen’s religious neutrality, starting with the comment about Christians being indistinguishable from the rest of the world. Religion is internal, not external; hence, customs (save cultic customs) should be common between Christians and anti-Christs. We must pause to ask, Why can’t Christians live in their own cities? Must I choose as the playground for my children a neighborhood full of blasphemous pagan children running about ? Such things are technically external, no?. Moreover, I’m not sure that the ultimate meaning of our lives “far transcends” the work and life we have in civil society. After all, whether we eat or drink we so to the glory of God, and what can transcend that? I’m afraid we can’t have work and play devoid of religion.
However, there can be little doubt that the adoption of Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century had a profound impact on how Christians thought about civil government. As time went on, Christians became much less prone to doubt the legitimacy of civil government-as in the days of the early church-and much more prone to forget its limitations. The idea of “Christendom”-church and state dwelling harmoniously as a unified Christian society-held the minds of many Christians through the Middle Ages and produced some heated debates that could not have otherwise taken place. Among these debates were those between “imperialists” and “papalists,” those who believed that ultimately the pope was to submit to the Christian emperor and those who believed that the emperor was to submit to the pope.
At this point VanDrunen’s readers cannot make much of what it means for Christians to forget the state’s limitations, for we haven’t seen what these are yet. Oddly–and tellingly–this is the only paragraph where VanDrunen mentions the limits of the state, but the limits he has in mind are those that keep the State from being a savior! In his system, Christianity means salvation, the stuff of redemption of souls. Since the State and civic square are not salvific, there can be no business of a Christian government, culture or society. Yet, if the State is not checked by God’s law, that is precisely the role it invariably assumes: a messiah! How can a man who has done extensive graduate work in law and theology–the same subjects he now teaches–not know this? Only God’s law can keep the state in its proper role as administrator of civic justice and protector of the church. Remove God’s law from the magistrate and you have a State Messiah that tyrannizes the freedoms of its citizens.
It is also strange to see a Reformed Christian put the word Christendom in quotations as if the word is disagreeable, or the concept of the state and church dwelling harmoniously is taken from anywhere but the Westminster Confession of Faith. Sections 2-3 of chapter 22 declare that the magistrate is to maintain “piety” in the common wealth, and ” to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordainances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed.” As we shall see, VanDrunen does not countenance such an idea of Christendom. Yet, I’m afraid we can’t have a church/state paradigm devoid of religion, at least from a Reformed perspective.
We now turn to the VanDrunen’s key section on the biblical teaching on civil government.
Many people have seen the origin of civil government already in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. When God declared that Cain’s punishment for the murder of his brother was that he would be a restless wanderer on the earth, Cain cried out that this was more than he could bear, because anyone who found him would kill him. The Lord answered that there would be vengeance upon anyone who killed Cain. It seems that Cain’s great fear was that there would be no system of justice to protect him, and God’s answer addressed precisely this problem. Little coincidence it is that immediately after this dialogue Cain goes forth and builds a city, for God provides justice in a sinful world through civil society. God did not promise salvation to Cain, but he did assure him that justice would not be absent. Here we find a first glimpse at the role of civil magistrates in this world.
Here is the entrance of Kine’s Common Grace Order. Note the last two sentences: there is a common order and a cultic order. God’s provision for Cain is a civil provision, not a redemptive one. More on this later, but this distinction between the civic and the cultic is misconstrued for a secular/sacred dichotomy that will unfortunately develop into a radical separation between natural and inscripturated ethics–and all of this is driven by the myth of religious neutrality.
We now move through the redemptive covenants with which VanDrunen will try to exemplify and solidify this distinction/separation.
Genesis 9 communicates a similar message. After the flood, God made a covenant with Noah, which is recorded in this chapter. God makes no mention of salvation from sin as he enters into this covenant. Rather, this covenant is made with all people and all living creatures indiscriminately, and it promises the continuation of somewhat normal life on earth. One of the provisions of this covenant is that no one is to kill another person, and that anyone who does will be subject to capital punishment. Rather than destroying life, human beings are to cultivate life. The command that God gives here, to be fruitful and increase in number, echoes the commands of the original creation mandate in Genesis 1. Despite the fall into sin, man retains the God-given tasks of working, procreating, and caring for creation, tasks which can and will happen only as there is some measure of justice in the world. Here again, Scripture gives us a glimpse of the task of what we now know as civil government.
Is it really true that because this covenant does not mention salvation from sin that it has no redemptive qualities? Is it true that this covenant is made with all people, sinners and saints? No and No. The flood came against sin; to say “neither will I again smite any more every thing living” is to say “In mercy I will withhold a form of my wrath against your sins.” Sounds redemptive– partial, and progressive, but redemptive. Moreover, to think that a reference to “man” in the text implies a common covenant (regenerate and unregenerate) rather than a religious one is unsound. God’s covenantal words here follow His being pleased by a covenant family’s religious sacrifice: “And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart…” Furthermore the command to bear children can only be seen as a command to populate the earth with Christian families, just as it was to our first parents. God’s covenants are always religious, always redemptive, and always made with his people. Again, there is no religious neutrality in the Noahic Covenant.
Some time later, God made a covenant with Abraham, and here he did what he did not do in the covenant with Noah, namely, set apart a special people for himself and promise them eternal salvation. But despite the promises that Abraham and his family received, they did not turn their backs on the world in regard to temporal matters. Genesis records many stories of Abraham interacting with the kings of the lands where he wandered, and he even consorted with several of them in rectifying a particular injustice that was done to his nephew Lot (Gen. 14). Later, the righteous Joseph took a high position in the royal court of Egypt and used his position to preserve the peoples of that land when faced with a devastating famine. The covenant families of Jacob and his children gladly took refuge under the civil protection of Egypt. This story of Joseph illustrates not only that God’s redeemed people may serve as civil magistrates, but also that God uses magistrates to do good for his people and for all people generally.
While it is true that God explicitly sets out a special people for himself in the Abrahamic covenant, it is not true that a special people is not involved in the Noahic covenant. Reformed theology sees a unity of the covenants, not a compartmentalization of them. The Adamic covenant was made with Christians and the Noahic does not interrupt this covenantal component. True, the Noahic covenant has more common features and common language than the Abrahamic, and the Abrahamic uses more particular language about the redemptive community. But this difference is seen as one of degree, not quality. Nor is this difference one of secular and religious. Before we continue, the reader should not miss the fact that the kings who favored Abram praised God for Abram’s deeds (Gen 14:8-20), stating that the political favor won by Abraham for the secular Kings’ benefit was done by God. Again, no religious-neutrality.
Between the time of Moses and Christ, the situation of God’s people changed in some important ways. In the covenant with Moses, God did something different from what he did in the Abrahamic covenant and from what he would do in the new covenant: he constituted his covenant people as a geopolitical nation, giving them a land of their very own and a system of laws to guide their civil life. When they arrived in the land of Canaan, God’s covenant people were no longer to cooperate with kings of other nations but to exterminate them. There is no space here to consider exhaustively the reasons for God’s administering things in this way, but surely they relate in part to the fact that the Promised Land of Canaan was to be a foreshadowing of the eternal heavenly kingdom in which God’s people were no longer to mingle with pagans, but be decisively separated from them.
At this point in redemptive history VanDrunen agrees that there is no religious neutrality in the public square. This is because the nation of Israel was cultic. It is interesting that the laws which define this cultic nation were also the laws that God drove out non-cultic nations for breaking (Lev 18:24-28; cf. Deut 9:4-5). Moreover, we should also note that the such laws provided for the foreigner to be in the land while not under Israel’s more strict cultic laws. We therefore have a legitimate separation between “church and state” that should be appreciated. It is with this appreciation in mind that we can make sense of something that VanDrunen’s system cannot: namely, that a redemptive nation’s civil laws were to be a model to other “non-redemptive” nations (Deut 4:6-8)!
This is consistent with the fact that when the people of Israel stepped away from the Promised Land, their attitude toward the rulers of the lands around them was often positive and not necessarily hostile. This is evident in the friendly relations that kings David and Solomon had with foreign rulers, such as Hiram, King of Tyre and the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 5 and 10). More telling are the instructions in the letter that Jeremiah wrote to the Israelites who had been carried into exile in Babylon. These exiles were not to resist the Babylonian government, but to live humbly under it. Jeremiah instructed them to build houses, get married, and have children. He told them to pray for the peace and prosperity of the city in which they lived. Jeremiah even explained that if that [sic] the city had peace, so would they-Babylon’s civil government would be their protection! Outside of the Promised Land, these exiles found themselves again in a situation like that of Abraham and the patriarchs, before the days of Moses. They were to live at peace with their neighbors as far as possible and acknowledge the legitimacy of civil magistrates, reaping the benefits of the social order they provided. Yet, just as Abraham, they knew that they were a people set apart by God for eternal life, and thus they recognized that this life in Babylon was one day going to come to an end when God restored the fortunes of his people (Jer. 29:1-14).
We find nothing terribly wrong with this paragraph, but nothing in it terribly persuasive for his thesis either. When a nation is punished with exile for breaking God’s gracious and freedom-giving laws, it must wait for God’s restoration–which Israel did. To say they were instructed by God (through the prophets) to be content as captives is not to endorse the permanence of captivity, nor the form and laws of the government holding the captives. Indeed, in captivity they awaited the restoration of the kingdom when God’s law would go out from Jerusalem into all the world (Micah 4:2 ff.) We also note that at times they did reject pagan laws, such as Daniel’s experience in Babylon–something troublesome for the “be content in Babylon” thesis.
With the death and resurrection of Christ, God brought to an end the old covenant with Israel and inaugurated the new covenant with the church. The situation of God’s new covenant people with respect to civil government in many ways resembles that of Abraham or the exiles in Babylon. God gave his New Testament people no special land of their own, no system of civil laws, and no instructions about exterminating their enemies. He entered into covenant with a church, not a nation. The church abides in many nations, not one. It mingles freely with its neighbors, even if not Christian. As Paul explains, though the church is to dissociate from so-called “brothers”-professing Christians-who persist in immorality, this does not mean cutting off relations with immoral people “of this world” (1 Cor. 5:9-11). Similarly, believers are generally to remain in their station in life, freely buying and using the things of this world, though without becoming engrossed in them (1 Cor. 7:17, 29-31). As part of this basic attitude, Christians are to submit to civil magistrates and recognize them as a beneficial gift of God.
If God did not give any land to the church (meaning Christians), to whom did he give it? Does VanDrunen propose that in the New Covenant (which is greater than the old) God has given land either to pagans or to no one in particular? But God did give his New Testament people a land: the earth (Matt 5:5; Eph 6:3; Rom 4:13). Do we really need explicit NT verses to prove this? To say that we do would be to argue for the faulty hermeneutic of VanDrunen, which we shall presently expose.
Throughout the essay,VanDrunen’s way of establishing a normative political policy regarding interaction between Christians and pagans is to examine what is indicative both in the language of particular covenants and in the history during these covenants. While it is true that what is commanded by God in his covenant is binding, it is not true that only that which he commands in a particular covenant is binding (e.g., the Ten Commandments were not reiterated in the Noahic covenant). Nor is it true that we can gain normative information by looking at historical data. This is to commit the naturalistic fallacy, claiming that what is the case ought to be the case.
Covenant theology sees a unity of the covenants, and it teaches the “carrying over” of covenant attributes to the next. Without God’s modification or recension of an attribute of a previous covenant, we should presume a continuity in the subsequent. Interestingly, it is this principle that constitutes much of the force behind paedobaptist’s (VanDrunen included) argumentation for baptizing covenant children. VanDrunen is making too much of what was the case for the early church, for her Messiah had just come to usher in the kingdom. The political goals and implications of that kingdom are never treated by VanDrunen, as he merely points out early first century indicatives. We affirm with VanDrunen that in the new covenant God entered into covenant with a church, not a nation. But has God ever entered into covenant with a “nation”? It seems that God enters into covenants more basically with people, and that their religion and ethics invariably work themselves out into national governments and politics. But even if we take “nation” in VanDrunen’s sense, we remember that the Great Commission has us applying God’s law to “all nations” (Matt. 28:18. ff).
We agree that in the Mosaic Covenant God detailed political law for Israel, but we also recall that as WCF 19.4 teaches the general equity (or principles) of these laws are still binding “on any other [nation] now”. Again, the elephant in the room is that nations today are trampling on God’s standard of justice. And once again VanDrunen merely reminds us to “submit to civil magistrates and recognize them as a beneficial gift of God.” One final paragraph by VanDrunen before we conclude.
Echoing Jesus’ own command to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, Paul instructs all believers to submit to the governing authorities. The reason is that God has ordained their authority, so that resisting them is resisting God himself. Though Christians are often tempted otherwise, we ought not see this as a burden, but as a blessing, for Paul explains that the magistrate is God’s servant for our good. He exists to be an agent of wrath and punish the evildoer (Rom. 13:4)-in other words, to bring about that justice on earth that God promised to provide already in Genesis 4 and 9. Contemporary Christians living in the First World often complain about the cultural degeneracy and political misdeeds of their own societies. Surely it is sobering to consider that the Roman government that Paul described as a blessing from God and worthy of obedience was filled with far greater injustices than First World Christians today endure. Paul reiterates the thrust of his concerns in 1 Timothy 2:1-2. Here, in telling Christians to pray for all people, he especially exhorts them to pray for kings and those in authority. For what purpose? Paul says that we should pray for them in order that we might live peaceful and quiet lives, in all godliness and holiness. When civil magistrates do their job-even to some extent-we are enabled to pursue our work and worship in ways that would be virtually impossible otherwise.
At what point may we pronounce this perspective as one that calls good evil and evil good? Is it a “blessing” to submit to wicked magistrates simply because God ordained them? What if they are unlawfully elected and therefore usurpers of their office? Is it a blessing for a child to submit to his abusive father’s molestation? After all, parents are an ordained authority over their children. These questions may require sensitive and nuanced answers but they are not irrelevant to the topic. However, it would appear that details cannot be discussed on VanDrunen’s antinomian paradigm because there are no answers to such questions, at least in theory. Only vague generalities, contracted verses, and pietistic platitudes are given to tyrannized Christian citizens.
The “job-even to some extent” that magistrates are to do cannot and will not be religiously neutral. When the magistrate decides to outlaw what Christians are commanded to do and legislate that which brings judgment on a land, we are indeed to pray: we are to pray for such man to be removed from office, and to pray for the magistrate to honor God’s revealed law so that we might have peace. When did peace ever come at the expense of, or the neutralization of, Christianity? Biblically, peace and joy are linked with righteousness, and when the magistrate outlaws righteousness and favors wickedness he is not legislating peace, for peace is not religiously-neutral.
We conclude by looking at the last part of the paragraph with which we began, VanDrunen’s closing words:
Like the exiled Israelites who looked forward to being rescued from Babylon and returned to the Promised Land after seventy years, Christians today look forward to the time when Christ returns and establishes that eternal kingdom in which righteousness and peace dwell. Until then, we gratefully receive God’s provision of civil government, with whatever justice, peace, and prosperity accompanies.
VanDrunen’s essay raises unanswered and uncovered questions and issues and thus fails to properly and biblically explain how magistrates are truly God’s ministers who bring divine justice against evil for the good of the Christian. It is not unwarranted to call it outrageous that an expert in law and theology can introduce this subject without also addressing the following:
- The source of law that should govern the magistrate in the pluralistic society he advocates. Rulers in New Testament times were called “lawless” (Matt. 2 Thess. 2:3; c.f. Mark 6:18), and such begs the question never answered. Even more peculiar is that VanDrunen is a staunch advocate of Natural Law, and has published a book on this subject. Even though we disagree with Natural Law, he at least could have enlisted it as a standard of justice.
- A Christian view of civil disobedience–especially when it is broached in the Scripture (Acts 4:18-20; Acts 5:29). Calling Jesus the King of king and Lord of lords wasn’t exactly humble submission to the Roman Emperor (Acts 17:7).
- How religious neutrality can exist, practically or theologically. Even a casual reader of the Scripture will notice such contrary statements, such as Jesus’ claims that one is either for or against him (Matthew 12:30), that no one can serve two masters (Matt. 6:24), and James’ statement that friendship with the world is enmity against God (James 4:4).
Given the data that VanDrunen has provided us about this subject, if a magistrate today is good toward Christians, is it purely accidental to his thesis. On his model, we must assume that a magistrate is God’s minister of justice simply by virtue of the tile “magistrate.” Whether King David, Nero, or Barack Obama, the magistrate is a gift.
The Psalmist in 11:3 asks, If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do? Nothing, says Westminster California.
In a future post, we shall review VanDrunen’s book, “A Biblical Case For Natural Law”.
Until then, our readers would benefit from reading this exchange on Christ and Culture between VanDrunen’s colleague, Michael Horton, and Douglas Wilson.