My last post, wherein I gave my initial reaction to Stephen Wolfe’s Case for Christian Nationalism, got a little more attention than I had anticipated. Most of that attention came via the de facto public square of Twitter. One reaction to that post is particularly helpful in that they thought my argument against Wolfe’s prelapsarian theory for the origins of civil government “is [not] all that good.”
Unlike a lot of folks who hang around on Twitter, I don’t mind it when people disagree with me. Also unlike a lot of folks who hang around on Twitter, I’m not under the impression that I have it all figured out. When people critique my ideas, I take it as a challenge in the positive sense. Maybe I’m wrong. Or, even if I’m right, maybe the way I am making the case for what’s true isn’t as effective, honest, or robust as I initially thought. In other words, I still have a lot to learn and that learning often comes by way of honest and dignified disagreement. So when a particular argument I made in my post was critiqued, I went back to the drawing board to think about whether I really believe what I wrote and whether I really think it can be supported by the evidence.
For the record, I am not suggesting that something like Christian Nationalism is impossible. I’m also not suggesting that something like Christian Nationalism cannot be supported by Scripture and classical, orthodox, Protestant theology. What I am suggesting is that Christian Nationalism, or any other Protestant political theory, is untenable if it relies on the proposition that civil government is a prelapsarian institution. The long and short of the critique in the above captioned tweets is that Christian Nationalism–or something like it–can be justified merely on the grounds of stewardship, and the debate over the distinction between pre- and postlapsarian origins is “a massive distraction.”
At this point, one might fairly ask whether it matters. If I’m not expressing open hostility or opposition to the concept of Christian Nationalism, then why pay any mind to the means by which anyone finds their own intellectual path to making their own peace with the possibility? What matters is that we all agree that some form of coordinated effort should exist whereby Christians work together to achieve a Christian culture, society, and nation.
Yes and no.
My approach to political theory, political philosophy, and public policy are driven by my approach in apologetics. It was my academic study of apologetics that led me into the academic study of politics. It was in reading the great theological minds, many of the same ones Wolfe cites in Christian Nationalism, that brought me to the study of political theory. These men did not stop at ecclesiology but expanded and applied their theological conclusions to every sphere of life. They develop Christian thought into a coherent system of philosophy that, like all coherent systems of philosophy, includes politics.
When it comes to apologetics, I do not discriminate against any one particular “school” or approach. Classical apologetics and the traditional arguments for theism, evidential apologetics and the role of empirical analysis, and presuppositional apologetics with its emphasis on the necessity of Christian truth all have their place and purpose. When it comes to political theory, however, the insight of presuppositional apologetics is valuable. The core insight of a presuppositional approach is the application of transcendental logic. This transcendental approach “looks for the (so-called) preconditions for knowledge and life” (Oliphint 2013, 46). In apologetics, this approach attempts to demonstrate that an essential precondition for all knowledge is the Triune God. In other areas, this approach attempts to demonstrate the epistemic and ontological preconditions for specific forms of knowledge.
Because Christian Nationalism’s claims represent an ideal Protestant political theory, it is important that we locate the specific transcendental justifications for the project. Because we’re (I assume) all Protestants, that transcendent justification or precondition must ultimately be grounded in, or theologically derived from, Scripture. After all, what Stephen Wolfe has given us is an argument by which he hopes to persuade Protestant American Christians to support his theory–or something very much like it–as a political agenda for explicit Christian action in the realms of politics and policy. Throughout the book, he repeats his desire that his theory can provide a beginning for a wider, pan-Protestant reclaiming of American culture. If that is to be the case, and if we’re going to claim that this project of reclamation is compelled by Protestant belief, then we must be able to defend this project consistently with other Protestant beliefs and we must be prepared to suffer for that defense (1 Peter 3:15-17). Speaking only for myself, I am not satisfied to merely say that something along the lines of what’s proposed in Case for Christian Nationalism is vaguely consistent with Scripture and past Protestant beliefs and that I have no better grounds on which to support it. But this isn’t the only reason why this is important in my mind.
Where we wind up is often contingent upon where we begin. There is no direct line between every point of origin and every possible point of destination. Our underlying presuppositions, assumptions, and axioms will in part determine our future progress, conclusions, and results. Because we are Christians and committed to a certain objective understanding of truth, things like consistency and coherence are important. Worldviews and philosophies that are consistent and coherent are more likely to be true and they are more easily and more thoroughly defended (Groothuis 2022, 46-47). Therefore, I think that the propositions or axioms with which we begin any argument are of supreme importance. In opposition to my well-meaning critic on Twitter, the distinction between a pre- and postlapsarian origin for civil governments is not just a “massive distraction.” Although I take his point about about “Congressional minutiae on the beaches of Normandy” in stride, if that minutiae was something like the justification for the policy of the war, how one feels about that minutiae will have an affect on how you fight in the coming battle–or whether you put up a fight at all. We cannot alter the moment in history we occupy, but we can reason rigorously about what we’re going to do and why we’re going to do it.
Finally, before getting into the meat of what I want to say here and jumping off from the above observation, I’ll simply say this: For the sake of argument, let’s assume that I and others like me join Stephen Wolfe and other like-minded Christians in this project of pursuing a Christian nation. Our tactics, techniques, and policy recommendations will need to be defended, advocated, and argued in the public square from the county commissioners’ office, to the state house, to the Capitol, to the White House, and everywhere else in between. We ought not accept lame or half-hearted defenses. Taking Case for Christian Nationalism at its word, to accomplish this “pan-Protestant” project, voices like mine, with backgrounds like mine, and with spheres of influence like mine will be needed to advance the project. If we’re talking about doing politics differently than they’re being done, consistently with Christian values, then we want honest participants, not hangers-on who expect more of the same politics, which amounts to nothing more than gaining power in order to reward friends and punish enemies. If that is the case, then what I’m trying to do–which, I’ll admit, is more about me trying to find solid theological and philosophical grounds for the book’s claims than anything else–is an important part of the process. That doesn’t mean I don’t welcome criticism of my own ideas. Criticism is necessary on all sides. It does mean that nobody should be disparaged for trying to work through the theological issues of how to construct a rigorous foundation for an explicitly Christian approach to politics. I cannot and will not participate in anything that I cannot defend on the basis of Scripture.
In that vein, I first want to address the analogy between family and the state. My argument is that Paul’s remarks about the purpose and justification for civil government in Romans 13 implies that the justification for those governments is their ability and authority to punish wrongdoing and reward good deeds. This is not the same as a father’s authority and duty to punish his children when they do wrong. Although they are similar, they arise from two different origins. The father’s authority is natural (prelapsarian) because the family structure originates in the prelapsarian state of innocence (Gen 2:23-24; Mark 10:6-9). The father’s authority, therefore, arises as his role as father and husband. The necessity of disciplining his children when they do wrong is a postlapsarian adaptation of a prelapsarian duty to govern his family. This is distinct from the authority of the state. According to Paul in Romans 13:1-7, the justification for the state is that it rewards good behavior and punishes wickedness. If the justification for the state is that it punishes wickedness and rewards good, then by theological necessity it cannot be a natural, prelapsarian institution because its justification for existence only exists post-Fall.
The reason why this is important is because every institution is directed at some teleological end. Aquinas observes this in Summa Contra Gentiles: “Of things which manifestly act for an end we say that that towards which they tend is their end, for the attainment of the end is the fulfilling of this and failure to fulfill is to fall short of the end intended” (Aquinas 1998, 260). Whether or not institutional origins are located in a natural prelapsarian or contingent postlapsarian telos is important for knowing what that telos is aimed at and when it has achieved its end. Thus, for any institution that originates in a prelapsarian state of perfection, there exists a teleological end of perfection that–although it cannot be achieved in this life–is possible in the eschatological sense. On the other hand, for any institution that originates in a postlapsarian state of imperfection, there can be no eschatologically perfected end. Its telos, and the means by which it can achieve that telos, are necessarily restricted by its origins.
The duty of the father to rule over, teach, and discipline his children is aimed at the end of fashioning faithful servants in Christ’s kingdom. Because the natural, prelapsarian origins of all human beings has a telos of fashioning image-bearing representatives of God, the prelapsarian origins of the family supports and helps to complete this teleological end. How one behaves as a father has direct consequences on his family insofar as his family relates to God and the church. This is one reason why Paul could write that “anyone who does not provide for his own relatives, and especially for his household” effectively “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8). The discipline and punishment that takes place between a father and his children is part of the father’s larger duty of providing for his family in a way similar to how God provides for the church.
The state and its civil government, on the other hand, does not have as broad of a mandate because of its postlapsarian origins. According to Romans 13:1-7, the justification for the state’s very existence is to punish wickedness and reward good. Thus, the teleological end for the civil government is merely one in which wickedness is punished and good is rewarded consistently. That is all. If the civil government of any society consistently and fairly punishes wickedness and rewards good, then its function is complete. There is no eschatological culmination of civil government because wickedness will cease to exist once Christ’s kingdom is fully realized.
Another way of looking at it is to understand the family’s functions in terms of other social institutions and their functions. For example, the family is the first school for the education of children (Deut 6:7; Prov 6:20; 22:6). The family is the first and primary place of worship and instruction in righteousness (Eph 6:4). One of the primary goals of economic activity is for the provision of stability for one’s children and grandchildren (Prov 13:22). In fact, most of the economic laws in the Old Testament are geared towards allowing families to provide for themselves without being dependent on others since a financially stable family is better prepared to perform its other functions, like disciplining and educating children (Stapleford 2015, 73). This is all to say, simply, that robust and flourishing families naturally coexist with robust and flourishing schools, churches, and economies.
In contrast to this natural coexistence, there is the tendency for the state to overtake each of these areas, including that of the family. The Protestant instinct is to protect the natural, prelapsarian, “organic” institutions of society from the encroachment of an ever-expansive, ever-power-hungry state, which locates its origins in a postlapsarian, “mechanical” function required by the Fall into sin (Joustra and Joustra 2022, 59-72). Non-Christians, because they do not possess the worldview resources to locate the true source of wickedness, are inclined to “absolutize the cultural sphere of the state” because they are incapable of self-government (Boot 2016, 18). When the culture and its natural institutions–family, school, church, and economy–consists primarily of Christians, these institutions are self-governing and require no state interference for their flourishing. In fact, within a Christian society, the role of the state should tend to be minimal since the suppression of wickedness tends to consist in punishing overt behaviors that we tend to think of as violent or degenerate crimes–burglary, theft, public sexual immorality, assault, and so on. The point is that within a Christian nation, the role of civil government is, by modern standards, severely restricted.
The reason for understanding why this is the case is simple: “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (Schmitt 2005, 36). That is, absent a sound Christian grounding, the characteristics and attributes of the sovereign God are transferred to the sovereign lawgiver (ibid.). Rather than families, schools, churches, and economies responsible and duty bound to Christ, they are responsible and duty bound to the civil government. Absent a Christian grounding, the state by necessity becomes the substitute for God as lawgiver and ruler (Boot 2016, 18-19).
Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, this act of substituting the state for God is a consequence of viewing the state as natural. Perhaps the best-known expression of the state as a natural institution is Aristotle, who in his Politics located the origins of the state in Man’s social nature, possession of speech, and a moral sensibility (2001, 1129). Like my Twitter-based interlocutor, Aristotle is fond of analogizing the family and the state. He says, “the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state” (ibid., emphasis added). Aristotle then goes on to say, significantly: “Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part” (ibid.). This is so because, in Aristotle’s analysis, the ability for human beings to do justice and live together peaceably is predicated on the existence of the state (ibid., 1130). Also within this analysis is the idea that humanity, via political society, is perfectible (ibid.).
In terms of historical theology, one of the most important thinkers who agreed with Aristotle’s analysis and Christianized it was Aquinas. Aquinas correctly notes that “[t]he first thing to consider is the ultimate end of human life and then how it is that a man can arrive at this end, or deviate from it, for the reason of things which are for the sake of the end is drawn from the end” (1998, 483). And what, according to Aquinas, is the “ultimate end of human life”? The answer: “happiness” (ibid.). Aquinas did, of course, go on to qualify this statement by saying that “God converts all things to himself as to the ultimate end. But he is also the ultimate end of man, because he alone is to be enjoyed” (ibid., 495). However, he also admits that “man does not always think of the ultimate end in every thing he desires or does. Therefore, a man does not desire or do everything for the sake of the ultimate end” (ibid., 493). Nevertheless, Aquinas accepts, largely without argument, the Aristotelian assertion that the human achievement of the ultimate good of happiness is possible only in political society (Koritansky n.d.). For Aquinas, like Aristotle, the political community is higher than and more important than the family since the full, perfected achievement of happiness is only possible in politically organized society (ibid.).
The question that one must ask themselves is whether the Aristotelian-Thomist view of political society and civil government as necessary for the achievement of the greatest human good squares with the testimony and evidence of Scripture. My contention is that it does not. If it did, then we would see some evidence that political organization was commanded or desirable prior to the entrance of sin into creation. Contrary to this, we see evidence that sin–and the wickedness that results from sin–is what makes political organization and civil government necessary. This is evident most clearly in Romans 13:1-7, but it is implied in other ways. The first mention of city-building in Scripture is by Cain after he “went out from the Lord’s presence” (Gen 4:16-17). The next mention of city-building is in Genesis 11 at the Tower of Babel, when the construction of a city with its attendant political organization was done to directly challenge and contravene God’s will (Gen 11:1-4). When Abram is called by God, part of the call is to go away from the urban center of Ur (Gen 11:31-12:1). The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, notoriously, are associated with open wickedness (Gen 13:10-13; 18:16-19:25). Jesus specifies several cities when discussing the judgment that will come on them for rejecting him and his disciples (Lk 10:13-15). Of course, cities tend to be places that are inhospitable, subject to xenophobia, and present as conglomerations of social ills that are in contrast to the pastoral values of hospitality, mutual aid, and distance (Kassa 2019). When we contrast this to Aristotle’s idealization of the city (2001, 1221) we see the contrasts between one set of ethics–derived from natural-law, creational values–and another–derived from rational speculation.
This is not to disparage or disregard either Aristotle or Aquinas. I make use of and respect both of their contributions to the development of Western civilization. But it is important to keep in mind that, like the magisterial reformers, their theory is historically contingent. However, the point is worth making that both of them serve as a major source for Wolfe’s theory in Case for Christian Nationalism. He justifies this by asserting the use of both in the arguments of Reformation-era thinkers. However, simply asserting this as evidence for the acceptability of either is misleading. The Reformers were of course arguing with a Roman Catholic power structure. Initially, neither Luther nor Calvin, nor any of their immediate successors, conceived of the Reformation as a complete separation from Rome and the Roman Church. Therefore, their adoption of authorities acceptable to Rome makes sense. Again, that doesn’t mean Aristotle and Aquinas aren’t worth paying attention to for a number of reasons. It does mean, however, that we should temper their contribution to political theory with Scripture and Protestant theology.
Another point in relation to the city as an idealized view of political society is the fact that cities in the ancient world served as cultic centers. The connections between various cities, their cultic centers, and the economy of inter-urban trade and commerce is documented throughout the ancient world, including Abraham’s hometown of Ur (Matthews and Richardson 2018). Thus, writers in both the Old and New Testaments would have likely associated the civil governments of cities with their associated cults, religious festivals, and the state religion (Walton 2018, 98-105). In many instances, civic and religious institutions were so closely linked that it can be difficult to distinguish between a civic structure and a religious one, and civil governments throughout the Ancient Near East used religion as a source of legitimation (Zuckerman 2010). This is in contrast to the political and religious systems developed in Israel, where the only legitimate place for cultic practice was wherever the tabernacle or temple was located. In practical terms, this meant that the other social institutions of family, economy, school, and even day-to-day worship were located away from the city and they were allowed to develop and flourish outside the immediate watch of either the religious or political establishments.
This explains why, for example, Israelite religion did not cease when the temple was destroyed by Babylon. It also explains why, for example, the early church’s adaptation of Jewish religious practices allowed for it to flourish in a pagan empire that was hostile to Christianity. And it is also important to remember why, exactly, that empire was hostile: Because Christianity “was out of sync with the traditional Roman understanding of what religion was designed to do” (Kruger 2018, 42). Specifically, the Romans “conceived of religion as something that would serve and stabilize the social and political structure of the Roman Empire” (ibid.). If you read the argument in Case for Christian Nationalism closely, this appears to be very similar to the argument for Christian Nationalism advanced by Wolfe.
At this point, you may be saying: “What does all of this have to do with one another?” What does the pre- versus postlapsarian distinction have to do with the idealization of the city in Aristotle, the links between religion and government in the ancient world, and the argument in Case for Christian Nationalism? Let me try to link it all together.
First, I think that Paul in Romans 13:1-7 (as well as Peter in 1 Peter 2:13-17, but with less specificity) makes a clear case for rejecting the argument that civil government is natural to the prelapsarian state of innocence. This is because the authority of civil rulers, granted by God, is limited to punishing wickedness and honoring good behavior. This means, by necessity, that a proper Christian perspective on the role and purpose of civil government is restrictive by most modern standards. That is, the duty to punish wickedness and reward good is a very narrow mandate that, because of its postlapsarian nature, has no redemptive value in and of itself.
I bring up the biblical theology of cities, so to speak, because I think it demonstrates that the biblical writers were suspicious of pagan political systems which, rather than seeing government as something necessarily limited in scope, adopted what is essentially the same perspective as modern progressivism: that government is responsible for shaping and ordering society. This is clearly the perspective that Aristotle advances (as well as Plato) and it is picked up by Aquinas, through whom it made its way into Reformation-era political thought. But I do not believe that this view is consistent with the biblical perspective. I also think that there are good reasons to believe that this view is an outcome of asserting that political society is natural to Man (i.e., prelapsarian).
Aristotle and Aquinas assert that humanity’s natural sociability necessarily means that humanity is naturally political. This is an assumption that Wolfe, in Case for Christian Naturalism, appears to accept uncritically. However, the danger in adopting this view–besides the point that it disagrees with the implications of Scripture–is that it locates the primary forum for social cooperation in the political sphere. Politics and the state become the hub and, ultimately, the ruler over how the other social institutions behave, interact, and go about their business. This is true whether or not one claims to be pursuing a distinctly Christian political community.
In practice, I don’t think that any political theory that locates the state and its government in nature, rather than as something distinct from, even opposed to nature, is capable of accomplishing much good. I think this because, for one, all forms of central planning–economic and otherwise–tend to work against human flourishing through the natural institutions. In many respects, all views of the state that locate the state in nature will resemble and adopt the perspective that is native to progressivism. That perspective is that people just won’t know what to do if they don’t have a ruler telling them what to do.
One of the seminal thinkers in progressivism, John Dewey, had this to say:
If we do not ask what are the conditions which promote and obstruct the organization of the public into a social group with definite functions, we shall never grasp the problem involved in the development and transformation of states. If we do not perceive that this organization is equivalent to the equipment of the public with official representatives to care for the interests of the public, we shall miss the clew [sic] to the nature of government.John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, 37
The problem with this view of government is that it assumes, like Aristotle, that all of the “definite functions” of the public’s concern must originate in and be directed by the state. I do not think that this squares with biblical theology. Significantly, Dewey goes on to say that the public is largely an unorganized mass that only finds purpose and direction when it is guided by a state (ibid., 67). This cannot be true if we accept that institutions like the family and the church are natural, with God-given purposes that exist independently of–and in many cases in spite of–the existence and intentions of civil government.
I’ll wrap this post up with one final observation. Christian Nationalism, as it is conceived in Wolfe’s book, adopts a view very similar to that of secular progressives. Wolfe appears to assume that control of the government will mean that the government can guide and influence the other social institutions. Whether or not one agrees with this, taking control of government and using it as a tool–in the interests of stewardship, if you like–is not how secularism came to dominate our current socio-political milieu. Instead, secularism came to dominate in all of the other social institutions first, which is what allowed it to take control of our governments. If Christian Nationalism, of whatever variety, is going to win the day in the United States and the wider West, it is not going to do it by seizing the levers of government power. It is going to win by retaking the social institutions, starting with the family, and moving out into other spheres–primarily the schools and, it pains me to say, the churches.
To this end, I will reiterate something I’ve said in other posts on this website: the current socio-political environment is an opportunity for the gospel. Non-Christians and nominal Christians are witnessing the rapid, ongoing decay of society and it is most evident in issues dealing with families and schools. These people do not have the worldview resources to comprehend or explain why they are surprised and outraged by this decay. Biblically-grounded, theologically sound churches have the answer. As much as I enjoy political theory and public policy, enough to dedicate uncountable hours to studying them, these endeavors are posterior to other social actions. Anterior to politics is a revival in the wider culture, and in faith I believe that this revival is coming and made possible by the moral and social decay on display. People are going to start looking for answers, and we as Christians ought to be honest in saying, yes, some of those answers are political, but that cannot happen until other issues are resolved.
And this is what connects all of this back to my digression on the biblical theology of the city. The city is where people are congregated, which means that it is also where human wickedness and depravity are most evident. Ironically, it is also where we see the most thorough application of political administrations. Cities are planned, they are rational, which makes their level of wickedness ironic in that, the rational application of the administrative and policy sciences ideally means that cities ought to be peaceful, productive, and prosperous (Weible, et al. 2022). Instead, what we witness historically is that the non-governmental social institutions flourish best when rational government planning and administration stays out of the picture. Some of the best evidence in this regard comes via economics (Hayek 1945) and the insights of economics applied to social theory (Hayek 2007). Anyone familiar with libertarian political thought will recognize those last two citations as seminal works. Thus, if I’m going to lay all of my cards on the table, then if you ask me what a Christian nation looks like, I would have to say that it looks a lot like the nation conceived of by libertarian theory: one where the economy, the educational system, the church, and the family are left alone to pursue the good that God intended them to pursue without the interference of the state and the grand ideas of those who have managed to capture its coercive force.
In the aftermath of the election this past Tuesday, many people are lamenting what’s come to be the pernicious influence of the (ever losing) Libertarian Party. One of the reasons for their loss is that their commitment to human autonomy as the highest political good cannot achieve what they seem to believe it is capable of. The explanation for why this is the case only exists within the Protestant Christian worldview. Only a Protestant Christian worldview can explain why liberty for the social institutions of the family, school, economy and church–such that it existed during the Early Republic period of the United States–produces human flourishing. But that explanation is only valid if one recognizes the fact, derived from Scripture, that governments are a postlapsarian institution made necessary by human sinfulness. When governments are viewed as natural and prelapsarian, then they are forced by reality and circumstance to compete with family, school, economy, and church. And because God has granted the state the power of the sword, there is little competition. It goes back to Carl Schmitt’s observation about transferring the omnipotence of God to the state–the state, when it is conceived of as natural, tends to assume that it can order social institutions in a manner similar to and derivative from God’s ability to do so. You cannot adopt this view, Christianize it, and then call it merely a faithful application of the principles of stewardship.
The debate over the prelapsarian versus postlapsarian origins of civil government are not a “massive distraction.” On the contrary, it is at the root of how one conceives of government and its role in society. If one accepts Paul’s implications in Romans 13:1-7, then that role is limited and severely restricted. When this implication has been heeded in the past–again, such as in the Early Republic–then the social institutions that actually produce human flourishing themselves flourish. When this implication is not heeded, such as in the dominance of progressivism since the early 20th century, the institutions that produce human flourishing languish. Such is the case today, which in another twist of irony, produce the conditions that prompted Stephen Wolfe’s theory.
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