Guest Post by Douglas Wilson
In the light of various Supreme Court decisions—Roe, Obergefell, and other mutants—where they have sought to sanctify things that God has declared unholy, confused and abominable, our ongoing responsibility as Christians is to think through a biblical understanding of our relationship to the state. It is a pressing responsibility.
We should already know that no human government can be absolute, and that when a human authority commands us to do something contrary to the law of God, we must obey God rather than man. Of course.
But we must also consider what to do when a lesser authority commands us contrary to the lawful requirements of a higher human authority. In short, we have to discuss whether limited government is a biblical concept. I want to argue that it is, by good and necessary consequence. Unlimited government is, by definition, idolatrous. In order to recover a vision of finite government, we must first recover a vision of the infinite God.
We can make some headway by considering the example of Daniel:
“Then these presidents and princes assembled together to the king, and said thus unto him, King Darius, live for ever . . . Then these men assembled, and found Daniel praying and making supplication before his God” (Dan. 6:6–11).
By this time in his story, Daniel is an old man, and his political enemies had contrived to get a law passed that would make Daniel’s prayer to God illegal. As soon as the law is passed, Daniel, in accordance with his station, goes home, opens the windows, and prays facing Jerusalem, as was his custom. Darius labored within the legal system to save him, but Daniel was not going to change regardless. Sometimes a higher human authority is on your side, and sometimes not, but in either case obedience to God comes first. Moreover, open obedience to God comes first. There was no requirement in biblical law to pray with your windows open, but under the leadership of the Spirit, Daniel was obviously ready for a confrontation.
So let me appear to change the subject for a few moments. The teaching of Scripture requires us to see all post-biblical history with biblical eyes. The Bible does not give us an inspired narrative of our history, but it does give us prophecy of how that history will go, and also gives us doctrinal guardrails so that we can stay on the road. So we have a responsibility, which we have grossly neglected, to teach our children the mighty acts of God with regard to those times in which we had no inspired historians. At the same time, in talking about these circumstances, it is crucial that we do so in a hard-headed biblical way, and without a hagiographic high-gloss finish.
In Scripture, law is overwhelmingly incarnational. That is, it is commonly situated in particular circumstances, from which wise men should always be able to derive the principle. Each law carries its own version of “general equity.” For example, consider the requirement of Deuteronomy 22:8.
“When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a battlement for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thine house, if any man fall from thence” (Deut. 22:8).
This is case law, meaning that we are supposed to grasp the principle, which is different than holding woodenly to a particular method. In other words, the principle underneath this law is as applicable today as it was in the time of Moses, but compliance necessarily looks different. We don’t go up onto the roofs of our houses to cool off in the evening. But we do go out onto our second story decks—and so biblical law requires a railing on second story decks. If there isn’t one, and someone is injured, the homeowner is liable.
Case law does not look like the all-encompassing requirements of a regulatory agency. The system of biblical law is a case law system, and it is important for us to adapt our laws to the shape of that system, and not just to the content of that system. Which is precisely what King Alfred (849-899) did. Alfred established our system of common law, which is a case law system, right out of Deuteronomy. This particular aspect of our heritage runs so deep that it cannot be rejected as easily as some secularists might wish. But that is why we have written constitutions.
A central part of our scriptural heritage is that fact that we have a biblical view of men as sinners, and the consequent need to honor “checks and balances.” This is not something that began in 1776, but rather was part of our received and ancient heritage. As it happened, we fought the English government over this, but it was for the sake of a political tradition that the English themselves had discovered. In short, the Declaration was simply Magna Carta 2.0.
And so this Christian history changes the picture entirely.
Suppose, for example, an office-holder, sworn to uphold the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, takes you aside and wants you to join him in rebelling against it. Do you obey him (“because of” Romans 13), or do you do the biblical thing and disregard him because of Romans 13? Disregarding him is the biblical response, and it is because these judges are manifest rebels against the document that is senior to them—the Constitution—as well as being rebels against the authority behind the Constitution, which would be the people. And never forget, behind every human authority, Christ is over all.
The American War for Independence provides us with a great example of how such layered authority works. First take the issue of usurpation. The Parliament of England did not have any constitutional authority over the colonies. This did not prevent them from claiming they did. The king, who had a feudal obligation to protect the colonies, refused to do so. Their obligation to him as vassals therefore ceased. In the feudal system, the lord owed the vassal protection, and the vassal owed the lord allegiance. When the king refused to protect the colonies from Parliament, their obligation of allegiance to him ceased. They never did have any obligations to Parliament. And when it came down to it, the colonies resisted encroachments from governing authorities without trying to overthrow the established authorities. This is why the War for Independence was an example of godly civil resistance, and not an ungodly revolt against established authority—as the French or Russian revolutions were.
Is this an example of what has come to be called American exceptionalism? Well, the phrase admits of various meanings, some of them sound and therefore not all that exceptional, and some of them grotesquely heretical. And this brings us back to the question of who God is
The phrase can be of the Madisonian variety, or it may be merely descriptive, as it appears to have been for de Tocqueville, or it might be used to justify our “Manifest Destiny” march to the Pacific, or lie behind the neo-conservative desire to remake the Middle East. This is a question that actually winds all the way through American history, and it is the exceptionalism of the Founding that we need to preserve. But before we preserve it, we must return to it first.
The Founders knew that we were not exceptional, and that was exceptional. This is not a contradiction in logic, but rather an exercise in what the Lord taught when He said that the first would be last and the last first. Ozymandian pride is as old as dirt, but humility leads to greatness. In the Old Testament there was Babylonian exceptionalism, which reduced Nebuchadnezzar to a level of bovine exceptionalism. There was Assyrian exceptionalism, which God judged with some severity. At the time of Christ, there was Pharisaical exceptionalism—where carnal men took the sovereign election of Israel by God, and turned it upside down so that they could take personal pride in it. In the post-biblical era, the Franks were exceptional. So were the Visigoths in Spain. Then there was Austro-Hungarian exceptionalism, followed of course by German exceptionalism. The same heresy cropped up in England, and then again now in the United States. It is like looking at a long row of jitney messiahs, all of them made out of tin.
But there was, for a time, a true exceptionalism at the time of the American Founding. Here is James Madison.
“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself” (James Madison, Federalist 51).
The entire system of government established by the Founders had a biblical genius to it, in that it regarded as axiomatic that Americans were not ever to be trusted, and were a nation of hustlers, mountebanks, and scamps. This really was genuinely insightful. It is the central constitutional insight. Never trust an American politician.
“Daniel answered and said: ‘Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, for wisdom and might are His. And He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings; He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding” (Dan. 2:19-23).
Daniel is clear on the fact that God in heaven rules over the affairs of men. Even Nebuchadnezzar, once recovered from his insanity, understood this (Dan. 4:34-35). A refusal to acknowledge this is the heart of insanity and madness. And so in order for us to understand the events around us, and our role in them, we must recover a biblical vision of the Godness of God. Whom do we serve? The god of contemporary religion is an idol and a loser. The gods we have fashioned in the forge of our own brains are not the God of the Bible (Is. 40:12-31). Who is the Lord? Who has known Him? Who has the power to define Him down to theological putty that men may shape as it pleases them?
So we as a people will recover our liberty when we recover a biblical vision of God, and not a day before.
Douglas Wilson is the pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. He is a founding board member of Logos School, a Senior Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College, and he serves as an instructor at Greyfriars Hall, a ministerial training program at Christ Church. He helped to establish the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC), and has authored numerous books on classical Christian education, the family, the church, and the Reformed Faith. After serving in the U.S. Navy in the submarine service, he completed a B.A. and M.A. in philosophy and a B.A. in classical studies from the University of Idaho. Douglas and his wife Nancy have three children and a bunch of grandkids.