Theonomy & Classical Reformed Christian Nationalism: A Modest Proposal
The conversation swirling around Christian Nationalism, the classical liberal order, and how Christians ought to think about particular policy proposals continues apace. These issues are in play with the current push for “school choice” and Education Savings Accounts, and they are in play with Senator Josh Hawley’s recent proposal to ban social media use for children under 16.
To which I tweeted out: “Yikes. No. This is the kind of folly that conservatives propose in the name of “the common good” that gives me the creeping fantods. This is why Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty and old fashioned theonomy are so necessary. God has not established the state/power of the sword to raise/train our children. Same goes for alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. As soon as you start letting the civil magistrate act like your mom, you will only get more of the Karen State that we currently have.”
And that seems to have stirred the waters. At this point, I’m hoping I’ve stirred the waters of Bethsaida and not something more shark infested, but that remains to be seen.
Part of the fun of the last few weeks was the honor of having Timon Cline on CrossPolitic, and we had a great time debating and discussing the differences between theonomy and what I think he and others would call classical reformed political theology – although I’m still not convinced that they are that far apart. Meanwhile, other conversations have continued behind the scenes with friendly critics of theonomy. And then we had the follow up honor of talking to David Bahnsen about his misgivings surrounding the “Christian Nationalism” conversation and his preference for the “classical liberal order.”
Some related factors are that sometimes advocates of “classical liberal order” *sound* a bit cavalier about our current cultural moment, and some, like David French, seem to have sold the whole farm to the leftists in the name of his version of the “classical liberal order” which seems to be code for “surrendering slowly.” But David Bahnsen insists that is not at all what he means or thinks. He envisions an explicitly Christian public square, but he is concerned not to make the civil sphere the central or primary actor in such an endeavor. The role of the Church and the family also need to be reinvigorated and reinforced, otherwise, you have a semi-conservative version of the current regime. And to his credit, there are some in the Reformed Christian Nationalism conversation that think it’s perfectly reasonable for Josh Hawley to propose age limits for social media, and others have suggested taking over the public schools and turning them into explicitly Christian schools funded by tax dollars and run by departments of education. All of which, I repeat, gives me the creeping fantods.
Warm Theonomic Fuzzies
The old Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians and Genevans who first sought reinvigorate civil magistrates under the spell of Papist supremacy (hence the name “magisterial” Reformers) affirmed that the specific civil laws of old Israel had expired with that particular state, except for the “general equity thereof.” While many modern Reformed types have concluded that this means something akin to “cute metaphors and warm fuzzy feelings,” the actual authors of the Westminster Confession and their immediate heirs functioned as though the Old Testament civil laws had a lot more to teach us than that. The fact that the early American colonies had Sabbath civil laws and blasphemy laws and laws prohibiting sodomy and adultery and fornication and divorce, tell you that they understood “general equity” as including the eternal moral and ethical principles resident in those civil laws and penalties.
Now first off I want to emphasize that I think we need to have this conversation. And by “this conversation,” I mean, I think we need to have those of you steeped in the Reformed political tradition talking with those of us who are more steeped in the biblical studies and theonomy. Some of us need to be reading Franciscus Junius and some us need to be reading Rushdoony. I really appreciated the olive branch of sorts from Stephen Wolfe on this topic (his article on “Classical Reformed Theonomy”), and I also really appreciated Bahnsen’s demeanor toward the whole thing as well.
Look, we’ve got men in lingerie twerking in front of little kids in public parks and libraries; I think this is the moment for us to work together, not splinter into a million pieces because we didn’t get exactly what we wanted. So first, off, I want to issue a general invite to anyone interested in recovering a truly Christian America to join the conversation in good faith. The leftist progressives rally around their common hatred of our Lord and His people, and they are frequently able to get more done together because of that shared hatred than conservatives because we throw elbows and knife one another in the back in the name of truth and morality and justice. Look, if you want to see drag queens banned from the public square, and our nation submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, you are most welcome to the table, even if our philosophical categories and methodologies are different. Let’s talk. Let’s work together. Let’s spar, debate, and brainstorm.
A Chastened Classical Reformed Theonomy
And toward that end, I want to propose one way of pushing the conversation forward. One trusted and friendly critic of theonomy lamented theonomy because biblical law, he said, simply doesn’t have enough substance to fill out a complete law code or public policy system. And I don’t have any problem acknowledging that we need more than what is written in Scripture. As the Westminster Confession says, “Nevertheless we acknowledge… that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (WCF 1.6). While this is primarily addressing the worship of God and the government of the church, I would argue that those activities that are “common to human actions and societies” would include the rational ordering of public policy and civil government, and therefore, those arrangements are to be “according to the general rules of the Word,” but must also “be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence.”
So here’s a practical question for my “classical Reformed” brothers: Since I believe that we agree that wherever Scripture establishes transcendent morality or universal principles of justice, those principles are universally binding on all societies and governments, regardless of time or place, can we agree that since we are Reformed and Protestant, those principles are “First Principles?” In other words, Sola Scriptura (understood rightly) applies here as much as anywhere else. Sola Scriptura does not mean that Scripture is the only authority, but rather, it means that Scripture is the only ultimate and infallible authority. Tradition, creeds, common law, parents, and pastors all play true authoritative roles in the life of Christians and Christian society. Nevertheless, the First Principles of Scripture are foundational, and wherever any other true authority bumps up against one of them, Scripture always wins. Are we on the same page so far?
Now here’s the proposal: I propose that we agree that wherever Scripture speaks on matters of universal morality and justice, those principles be nailed into the ground with enormous steel stakes (yuge ones). At that point, I would be happy to concede that all by itself, those general principles of justice are not enough to build out a modern civil law code, but since we are Protestants, we are agreed that whatever else ought to go into that law code, it must be deduced from those principles by good and necessary consequence, according to the light of nature and reason, and be consistent with them.
Now this might be where I run into trouble with critics of theonomy, but as a fiercely loyal Protestant, I also want to insist on a sort of regulative principle of power. Since all power is derived from God (Rom. 13), all power is wielded by His blessing and in submission to His ultimate power or else it is wielded in defiance of His blessing and power. Furthermore, this fits with what the Confession says regarding worship, that what is clearly stated must be explicitly obeyed, and whatever else is necessary for a flourishing society must be deduced from those principles and the light of nature. This need not be taken as tight-shoed regulative principle, but simply, as my old seminary professor, Hughes Oliphant Old, like to say, it must be “according to Scripture,” obedient to the commands and consistent with its principles and examples.
A Few Stakes in the Ground
What follows is certainly not an exhaustive list, but this will do for a start.
First, while I do believe that civil government was instituted before the Fall and would have developed as families filled the earth, organizing society with a body of customary laws to maximize their good (deciding which side of the road to drive on, for example), the primary postlapsarian instruction and picture we are given of civil justice in the Bible captured well in the paintings and statues of Lady Justice: she is blind (or blindfolded), holding balances in one hand, and a sword in the other. This accords with the repeated instructions to the judges, “Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man; for the judgment is God’s…” (Dt. 1:17). Justice requires diligent inquiry, but that inquiry is primarily for the purpose of putting all the facts in the scales of justice. While justice requires wisdom, it is not primarily a “creative” task. The judgment of justice is God’s. Diligent inquiry puts all the facts that we have in the scales, and it is the job of civil magistrates to deliver verdicts of equity, which is primarily punitive (as indicated by the sword).
Now when I said that Josh Hawley ought not be leading the way in banning teenagers from social media since that is family/parental jurisdiction, some friends pointed out that the Bible on one occasion refers to magistrates as nursing fathers and mothers (Is. 49:23). And so it does. But that one image (which we should not abandon) cannot be made the normative image without doing great damage to the rest of Scripture. The key question of course is: how are civil magistrates to be faithful fathers and mothers? The answer is: by doing justice according to God’s law. Isaiah 49:23 is no more a defense of Social Security, Medicare, and government schools than is Paul’s description of himself as a father default permission for him to tell parents which breakfast cereal is right for their kids. The church is the household and family of God, but that doesn’t mean that the church is the first line of defense for widows. Paul insists that a man that doesn’t provide for his own family is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:7). These natural affections, natural obligations remain firmly in place, including then the fact that the civil magistrate has no role in health, welfare, and education, unless you simply mean the role of punishing criminals and cheering churches and families on in their tasks.
Another stake to drive into the ground is the most basic principle of biblical justice: the lex talionis: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex. 21:24-25). A number of case laws are laid out in the biblical law that give is a lot of information about how this principle is to play out (e.g. slaves that are struck and lose an eye or tooth must be set free). Related is the principle of restitution: a thief caught stealing must return double (Ex. 22:4). Because what he sought to do his neighbor ought to be done to him to restore balance to the scales of society. If the theft is of a particularly great value, perhaps including the ability of a man/business to do his productive labor, or if the stolen item has been sold for profit that restitution may be increased to four or five-fold (Ex. 22:1).
The penalties in the Mosaic law should also be taken seriously, and they should be understood as maximum penalties. The only required death penalty is for murder (Gen. 9). Related to this is the principle that only civil magistrates have the power of the sword, and so church and family government may not execute criminals or heretics. This is part of the glory of Dt. 21:18-19 regarding the rebellious son. In some ancient societies, a father claimed the right to execute his own children, but God’s law forbids it. Perhaps a pagan father might have even argued “from nature” that since he had brought the life into the world, it was his to adjudicate, but God’s law prohibits it. The law provides that the family government may appeal to the civil government for adjudication and potential capital punishment. But notice that until an actual crime has been committed, the civil magistrate has no jurisdiction, and the civil magistrate is only involved upon appeal from the family government. This would be one such biblical principle that would render Sen. Hawley’s proposed social media legislation null and void.
One of the most often cited laws in the Old Testament for explaining the continuing relevance or “general equity” of Mosaic law is Dt. 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.” On the one hand, this certainly is an extension of the sixth commandment forbidding murder, and it certainly establishes the notion of liability for negligent homicide or battery. The general equity of this law would be rightly applied to people who refuse to put a fence around their swimming pool or a deep pit or their upstairs balcony (and arguably, reckless driving): if someone falls and dies or is injured, the home owner/driver can be held negligently liable. And the overarching principle is certainly the duty of all to take reasonable precautions to protect and preserve life.
At the same time, some want to reason from this principle that health and building codes are therefore a reasonable application of this justice. But while it would certainly be a “sin” to act in high-handed negligent ways, it was not a “crime.” The lex talionis principle requires that actual harm be measured for appropriate penalties to be exacted. But if a man built a balcony and refused to build a railing or drove recklessly through town, he may very well be in sin, but until actual damages have occurred, what penalty would truly be “eye for eye?” We also shouldn’t underestimate the power and influence of the family and church governments and their related communities. Not every problem must be solved with guns and fines. Many problems should be solved by community pressures and influence.
The fear of the classical reformed Christian Nationalist types is that “the classical liberal order” is code for more liberalism, more false offers of a seat at the table of a neutral public square, and defeatism and apathy, but let us be done with all offers of neutrality, secularism, and the like.
Jesus is Lord of the public square, and the Great Commission requires us to preach and make disciples of all the nations.
So America must confess that Jesus is Lord formally, and our laws must reflect is eternal law, as derived from Scripture and nature and reason, but with Scripture firmly ensconced as the Chief authority.
On the other hand, my friends of the theonomic Kuyperian classical order flavor are understandably nervous that if we do not firmly root our “Christian order” in Rutherford’s axiom, that the Lex really is Rex, and that justice and the “common good” must be grounded in God’s Special Revelation in Scripture, then in the name of “the tradition” and “the common good” and “reason” and the “light of nature” we will end up right back where are, a Machiavellian power grab that happens to have Christian symbols and phrases attached to it.
It’s true that the “classical liberal order” guys sometimes sound like power is only icky and bad, but in our determination to take responsibility for this mess of country, we must have clearly defined limits to that power. And it’s also true that sometimes the Christian Nationalists sound like they would be willing to do anything to punch the liberals and score points. But tyranny is still tyranny even you try to defend it in the name of “the common good.” The “common good” is whatever God says it is, and nothing else. And if God has given the authority and power to wield, then we should not be afraid of it. We should take it up with boldness and joy in the name of Christ.