A Way Important Preamble
An important debate is occurring among those Christians who have noticed that our culture has come untethered, and has floated off like a child’s lost carnival balloon. Quite unlike the balloons recently shot down by missiles that cost upwards of half a million dollars each, our balloon does not appear to be up there on purpose. Rather, like Wordsworth on a maudlin and somewhat soppy afternoon, it wandered lonely as a cloud. You know, I think that any decent writing tutorial would say that I have way too much going on in here for a first paragraph. Let us not try to fix it. Too late for that. Let us just move on.
Shifting the metaphor to one that is becoming more standard for our times—that being the striking image of navigating life in clown world—the secularists appear bent on demonstrating their power and authority through showing us a miraculous sign. Paul says that demonic powers can wow the populace with lying wonders (2 Thess. 2:9) or, put another way, with counterfeit miracles. In an attempt to ape the Lord’s miracle with the loaves and fishes, our current shamans are stupefying us with just how many clowns they can get to come out of that little car. Just when you thought the trick was over and done, out come another six.
But I mentioned a debate between Christians, didn’t I? There are a number of believers who have recognized the radical unstuckness that is afflicting our generation, and it really is heartening to see the realization dawn on a number of different groups that we absolutely need to present a Christian alternative to secularism. Not surprisingly, there are more than a few ways to do this, and so we have different groups suggesting different ways for us to achieve this. There are the theocratic libertarians (Toby Sumpter), classic Reformed political theology (Timon Cline), Christian nationalists (Stephen Wolfe), a Christian form of the classic liberal order (David Bahnsen), stout Baptist resistance (Michael O’Fallon), tactically compromised Baptist resistance (Al Mohler), single issue resistance (John Piper), old school theonomy (Greg Bahnsen), natural law (J. Budziszewski), magisterial Baptist (Joe Rigney), and those trying to stave off or postpone an inevitable already-baked-in sell-out (David French). And of course, our raggety-taggety company here at St Anne’s must not forget our very own MacPhee (James Lindsay). And I would beg leave to play the role of Mr. Bultitude.
So now I will now ask you to kindly hold your horses. Cool your baby jets. I know and understand that a number of the aforementioned would object to being limited to just one of those groups, and others would say that some of the groups are identical, for pity’s sake, and others would say I named their group wrong. I would reply that this is kind of the point I am trying to make. I am of the conviction that if we made a Venn diagram out of the whole shebang, the result would mostly be a circle with blurry edges, with a couple of elliptical outliers like French and Lindsay. I myself would be happy to identify with at least four of those mentioned options, and to be friends with most of the others.
We need to have our debate, but we need to have it without freaking out at each other. So before having the debate, we need to situate the debate, which I will address more fully in my conclusion down below. Provided the men involved in running their proposed systems were regenerate and God-fearing men, I would much rather live under any one of those systems than under the Wuhan fire drill we currently have running. And part of my argument for thinking we are living under a Wuhan fire drill is that it is actually possible for someone to get into serious trouble these days for saying something hurtful and deeply disturbing like Wuhan fire drill.
That Said, Seven Theses
The first thing, the essential thing, is to recognize that the source of our laws has to come from outside the world. Secularism is bankrupt, and this means that we must define our days, our lives, our laws, and our goals, in reference to the true God, and to His Son Jesus Christ. If we might, let us repurpose the thing that King David said that one time.
“And David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Please let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are great; but do not let me fall into the hand of man.””
2 Samuel 24:14 (NKJV)
The true God is holy and He is immutable, and so the laws based on His nature and character will be clean, and they will be consistent. When we base our laws on the unholy and unstable whims of men, we are subjected to laws that are both polluted and erratic. Let us not fall into the hands of untethered men. Law, in order to be law, must have a transcendental grounding. Without that, governmental policies are still enforced, but what is enforced is nothing but the whims of mortal men. The authority for our law must come from outside the world, and in order for this to happen, it must be explicitly grounded in the will of the true God, and not an idol.
The second point to be made is that prior to the framing of any righteous laws, we must have a righteous comprehension of the role of law itself. If we want theology to inform our approach to specific laws, we have to begin with our approach to law generally. And a biblical worldview requires, demands, and insists upon limited government. The goodness of the intention behind any particular piece of legislation does not therefore justify it (e.g. Sen. Hawley’s proposal to ban social media for kids under 16). Any such legislation must fit within a framework that is constantly and biblically suspicious of the government’s natural tendency to set itself up as a rival to Christ. If we are going to honor God’s commandments, as given on Sinai, then the first and most foundational thing we must insist on is that our government bind itself to honor the first of the Ten Commandments. “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Down through history, the chief offender against this commandment has consistently been the state, and not the occasional village atheist here and there. Insistence upon strict boundaries and limits for government is therefore not some Madisonian hand-me-down, but rather needs to be one of the primary planks in a theocratic platform, one of the top three. Limited government is essential because governments are made up of sinners, and we have not advanced very much at all if Caesar crowns himself Lord . . . in the name of Jesus. Limited government is a theocratic necessity.
Third, the source of law from outside the world is communicated to us in various ways. We know His will for our lives from holy Scripture rightly interpreted, from natural revelation rightly interpreted, from the common law tradition rightly received, and from our own consciences rightly interpreting all of the above. The true God has inspired the Bible. He has revealed Himself through the things that have been made. He has guided His people down through history, shoring up the good in our common law tradition and excising the bad. And He has placed the work of the law, written in the hearts of men, such that the consciences of men resonate with His will when it comes to them from outside objective sources. It is necessary for us to acknowledge that our understanding of these things is coming to us from the true God, and we must not be embarrassed to use His name, or to acknowledge these varied avenues by which He reveals His will. In this “judicial” system, our consciences are the attorneys, common law is made up of district courts, natural revelation is made up of circuit courts, and Scripture is the Supreme Court. So then, God reveals His will to us in various ways, which means that we must acknowledge Him in all those various ways. There are many courts, but only one Judge.
Fourth, the Mosaic code must not be simply dropped onto our own era as though no adjustments are needed. We do not simply want the stipulations of the Mosaic code, we want the structure of that legal system itself. And as the Mosaic code was a case law system, and not a legal system that anticipated every possible eventuality beforehand, to simply institute the Mosaic code “as is” would be to disobey the law of God. A case law system does not ignore precedent, it does not ignore historical developments, and it does not ignore the cosmic transformation brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Mosaic code was a perfect law code for its time, not a stainless steel law code for all time. This is not relativism—it is the result of a careful study of what the law itself required and anticipated. Progressive revelation is one of the things revealed. So a theocratic understanding of Old Testament law rejoices in how the ceremonial law preached the coming Christ and is now fulfilled, and exults in the moral law as the embodiment of love for all time, and embraces the general equity of the judicial laws given to Israel. This means we will have to learn to think like Christians as we fill in the gaps. As we fill in the gaps, we do not get to reason in any old way we like, but rather we need to reason analogia legis, according to the pattern established by what has already been revealed. We must put on our epistemic big boy pants. For example, biblical law says virtually nothing about water rights. But water rights are a major feature of any modern legal system, and particularly in watery America, and so addressing it is not optional. We are not acting autonomously when we address things like this. Application of Old Testament law must therefore be made conscientiously and obediently, which is not the same thing as making the applications woodenly.
Fifth, the separation of church and state, a wholesome and biblical idea, is entirely different from the demented idea that we can have a separation of morality and state, or separation of God and state. Separation of church and state is simply keeping a distinction between two different kinds of governments. But separation of morality and state is a decision, in principle, to hand over unlimited and unrestricted power to unaccountable maniacs. States are human institutions and therefore make human decisions with moral ramifications all the time. Can a state break a treaty? Engage in genocide? Launch wars of aggression? Persecute a portion of their population? Of course, which means that all states are moral agents. But competing systems of morality arise out of and are justified by various religions and worldviews, which means that no state can possibly be worldview neutral. No state can be religiously neutral. Impossible. They can, like ours currently, pretend to be neutral, but this just adds hypocrisy to their other crimes. To envision a state that shows no preference between Baptists and Presbyterians is a relatively easy exercise, and would be noble if executed rightly. But to envision a state that pretends to show no preference between Baptists and sociopaths, or between Presbyterians and twerking drag queens, is not to display an admirable neutrality. This only happens when the state has decided to side with the kinky tribe+, and it is quite a game with them to see how long it will be before the Christians catch on. Believe it or not, some Christians still haven’t caught on. This means that separation of church and state and separation of Christian morality and state are two entirely distinct issues, the former being a Christian ideal and the latter a demonic ideal.
Sixth, no righteous political order is going to descend from Heaven, full and complete. The leaven is designed to work through the three measures of flour gradually. The process is therefore designed to take centuries and/or millennia to complete. The influence of the church in history should not be considered a failure just because some impatient kids in the back seat are asking, “Are we there yet?” We are nowhere close to the end, but we have done a lot of good already. We should not abandon the task of doing what good we can just because we are not yet in a position to do all the good possible. We should be content with the tasks that God has assigned to our generation, and not feel bad about the trajectory. The track record of Christians in the public square is not one of unbroken success, but it is nothing to be ashamed of.
Seventh, Abraham and his seed are in fact going to inherit the earth (Rom. 4:13). Apart from a postmillennial eschatology, which can afford to be patient, political debates between rival Christian political theories will necessarily become much more heated than they need to be. This is because without a doctrine of gradual historical development into the future, every debate about different proposals will have to act like those making the proposal want to enact everything tomorrow, and that introduces conflict of necessity. This is because all the proposals, mine included, would be an obvious disaster if implemented tomorrow. So no matter what happens, tomorrow is going to be a hodge-podge. This means that as we in various ways describe our ideal Christian republic to one another, we ought to do so with the proviso that we are talking about 300 years from now, and not about the aftermath of the 2024 presidential election. We are building a cathedral that will take centuries; we are not putting up a tent on a camping trip. Christian political theory, at its best, is a rolled up set of blueprints. Christian activism, at its best, is digging trenches and pouring footings. Now this latter activity is best done by those who have studied the blueprints, but we are nowhere close to erecting the towers. Protestant political theory requires a doctrine of history, and this in turn is best informed by an optimistic eschatology.
Returning to the Way Important Preamble
I would call my position theocratic libertarianism. But I am also happy to be brothers-in-arms together with all kinds of folks. We are not a regular army, but rather an assemblage of militias, called out in the middle of the night. Some of us were not as ready as others, which accounts for the fact that a few of the units arrived in their PJs. Other units, the dispensational preppers, showed up with the fire power of a small but militaristic nation. David Barton was the very first one here—he is the one with the musket, looking like that insurance company logo. God bless all of them. So when John Piper defends the unborn, he has my full-throated support. When Stephen Wolfe is unembarrassed to confess that Christ ought to be considered to be Lord of these United States, I stand on the chair and wave my hat. When Andrew Walker defends religious liberty, I like what I read, and nod cordially in his direction. And can I do this while holding to various disagreements with various aspects of the various proposals? Of course, and why is that? Let me explain why this is possible. More than that, let me explain why it is necessary.
We are not comparing all these proposals to one another. We are not in the seminar room of any kind of academic institution conducting blue sky debates. Rather, we should be comparing what they all have in common with the demonic and demented rule we are suffering under now. Every last one of these Christian proposals, warts and all, would be a major upgrade. Of course, one of the Christian proposals is better than the other Christian proposals (and for my money, that would be mine), but that is nowhere close to the issue right now.
For us to quarrel about our respective systems here and now is like football players in training camp fighting about the seating arrangements at the Super Bowl MVP banquet. It is like Ben-hadad talking trash to the mirror while he puts on his armor. It is like kindergartners squabbling over who is going to be the first one of them to win a Nobel Prize. It is like disciples behind Jesus on the road to Jerusalem arguing about who was to be the greatest, and if you recall, He had words with them about that.
I would rather be ruled by any one of these guys, and their projects, with my disagreements thrown in, than by any kind of secularist. Luther is purported to have said that he would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian. Yeah, so we signed up for that, and what we got was a foolish Turk, high on meth, and no one manning the phone at the help desk. I would rather be ruled by Brian Mattson than Joe Biden. I would rather be ruled by Andrew Sandlin than Hillary Clinton. I would rather be ruled by Al Mohler than Bernie Sanders. I would rather be ruled by John Piper than Nancy Pelosi. I would rather be ruled by Andrew Walker than Gavin Newsom. I would rather be ruled by Stephen Wolfe than Gretchen Whitmer. I trust you get the picture.
And remember that not one of these proposals is going to be lowered from Heaven by a crane, complete and entire, and all we have to do is take off the plastic wrap and remove it from the palate. What is going to happen is going to take shape gradually over the course of centuries. And the ideas we exchange now, and the debates we have now are going to be important as we hammer out the direction we will eventually take. And for almost all our proposals, the general direction is the same.
So if we want a Christian future, one of the best ways to prepare for it is to debate like Christians in the present.
For Further Reading
Pastor Toby has some good thoughts here. I too have written on such things aforetime.
I am opening the comments on this one. So behave.
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