My last two posts have concerned ideas related to arguments made in Stephen Wolfe’s Case for Christian Nationalism. Reactions to my initial post on the topic argued against the relevance of my case that Wolfe’s assertion that civil government’s orgins are natural and prelapsarian is not supported by Scripture. I, on the other hand, disagree. Based on an approach grounded in presuppositional apologetics, I argue that the distinction between a natural, prelapsarian origin for civil government and an opposing origin that is postlapsarian and “mechanical” is fundamental to the view of the state one is likely to adopt.
In this post, I want to expand on all this by looking closer at the teleology of the state and why its origins are determinative of its telos.
I’m not going to rehash or reargue points that I made in my last two posts. I will take it as defended that: (1) Paul’s remarks about the nature of government in Romans 13:1-7 indicate that its divine mandate and justification are that it exists to punish wickedness and reward the good; and that (2) the divine mandate and justification for government implies necessarily that it is a postlapsarian institution since it exists specifically to deal with the consequences of sin.
The ideas that I want to address in this post can be summed up in one question: Is it possible for civil governments to accomplish their telos before the eschatological culmination of history?
In other words, I’m asking whether it is possible for human civil governments on earth today to accomplish their divinely-appointed mandate before and independently of the eschaton. As one might probably guess, my position is that they can and that this is indicative of their postlapsarian origins.
My argument is quite simple.
- Paul’s remarks about the divine sanction and justification of governments in Romans 13:1-7 implies that they are contingent upon governments performing the duties of punishing wickedness and rewarding good.
- Because of the historical context of when Paul wrote, he was speaking specifically of pagan governments, particularly of the Roman Empire and the various governments, rulers, and magistrates that existed subordinately to that empire.
- Pagan governments will not be present on the renewed earth after the eschatological culmination of Christ’s kingdom.
- Therefore, it is possible for pagan governments to fulfill their telos on this earth prior to the eschaton. This must be the case if Paul is telling us the truth (which, of course, he is) when he says that pagan rulers are “God’s servant to you for good” (Rom 13:4).
If pagan governments can fulfill their divinely appointed mandate prior to the eschatological culmination of Christ’s kingdom, they are by implication not natural, prelapsarian institutions since the natural, prelapsarian institutions (like the family and the church) will continue to exist in some form within the completed, eschatological kingdom of Christ. But it is now time to move on from the pre- versus postlapsarian debate. If we can recognize that human governments, including and especially non-Christian governments, are capable of fulfilling God’s plan for them completely within the current age, then this has major implications for how we develop a biblically-based political theory.
When we are trying to apply Scripture to the demands of contemporary life, it is paramount that we get a grasp on the socio-historical contexts that Scripture was written to in the first place. We cannot apply the lessons of Scripture in our own socio-historical context if we do not understand the lessons in the text’s own socio-historical environment.
When it comes to Romans 13:1-7, there are several important things we can note. First, Nero was likely the emperor when Paul wrote this letter, but he had not yet begun his persecution of Christians (Keener 2014, 450). In fact, Nero’s government at this time was fairly stable since he was “still under the benevolent influence of” men like Seneca (ibid.). To begin to grasp what this benevolent influence was like, we can turn to the things that Seneca himself wrote. One such piece of writing is insightful:
Praise in him [a man] what can neither be given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly a man’s.
You ask what that is? It is his spirit, and the perfection of his reason in that spirit. For man is a rational animal. Man’s ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born. And what is it that reason demands of him? Something very easy–that he live in accordance with his own nature. Yet this is turned into something difficult by the madness that is universal among men; we push one another into vices. And how can people be called back to spiritual well-being when no one is trying to hold them back and the crowd is urging them on?Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, 88-89
It was this idea, that the purpose–the telos–of a man was “realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born,” that Seneca tried to inculcate with the reign of Nero. In terms of the ruler (i.e., the government), this purpose was characterized by being “conscientiously committed to the cultivation of a specific typology of virtues by means of an ethical regimen whose content [is characterized by things like]—self-inspection, self-interrogation, self-surveillance” (Stacey 2011). This “recourse to a series of reflexive verbs” was necessary because Seneca was intent on building an ideal political theory of the sovereign ruler wherein that ruler, to be a ruler, must commit himself to “the intricate shaping of a self-reflective moral persona that must be incorporated by the bearer of political sovereignty if he is to be regarded [. . .] as legitimate” (ibid.). This perspective is consistent and coherent when considered in conjunction with Paul’s words in Romans 13 insofar as the ability to punish wickedness and reward good requires both an ability to recognize the differences between wickedness and goodness as well as, perhaps more importantly, the ability to recognize wickedness and goodness within the ruler himself. Assuming that Nero, and most of the governors beneath him, were operating on this premise so long as Seneca had influence, then we can understand the socio-historical contexts that allowed Paul to say what he said.
One common, often explicitly Protestant reaction to this is to say that the only way for rulers to truly distinguish between wickedness and goodness is to do so in reference to the Law of God as it is revealed in Scripture. It is in the spirit of this assertion that Protestants are inclined to adopt the title of Greg Bahnsen’s book, By This Standard. “By what other standard,” they ask, “are we to identify wickedness and goodness if not through the revealed law of God?” When one adopts this attitude, it is hard to see a way forward other than to suggest that we ought to make governments explicitly and intentionally Christian. But what does Scripture say?
At the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote this:
For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. From the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse.Romans 1:18-20 HCSB
Christians have always recognized that this explication of what we normally refer to as natural law means that what knowledge of God is available through critical, reasoned examination of the world and humanity’s place in it is enough for God to punish the wicked. As I have argued before, reading Romans 1 and taking its claims seriously means that everyone knows the difference between that which is good and that which is wicked. Christians engaged in the public square can make explicitly Christian arguments and know that people can comprehend and understand them, and even appreciate the truthfulness of those claims whether or not they’re Christian. Recourse to biblical revelation, in distinction to natural revelation, is not necessary. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make reference to or ground our arguments explicitly in Scripture. It just means that when we do, even non-Christians can understand the arguments we’re making.
This is true in part because, based on what Paul is saying in Romans 1, to some degree the scripturally revealed laws of God are telling us things that we already know. J. Budziszewski puts it this way:
God commands or forbids something that the mind itself can recognize as right or wrong. Telling us what we already know or could have known may seem superfluous. Yet, as equatorial sunlight prickles the skin, so revelation prickles the mind and wakes it up [. . .].
Precept confronts us because certain matters of right and wrong are so obvious that at some level everyone already knows them.J. Budziszewski, The Line Through the Heart, 45
Returning to Seneca’s influence over Nero at the time when Paul wrote Romans, we could say that what Seneca influenced Nero (and, one can assume, through hierarchical example, other rulers within the empire) to do was to perfect, as much as humanly possible, his recognition of those things that, absent revelation, one can know to be right and wrong, true and false, wicked and good. Understanding what all this might mean in terms of a Christian political theory is moved along by understanding some other historical facts surrounding the Roman church at the time Paul wrote.
One of the issues that Paul was dealing with in his letter to the Roman church was conflict among Jewish Christians and gentile Christians. This conflict was caused by a long absence of Jewish Christians within the Roman church due to the banishment of all Jews from the city by the Emperor Claudius (Kruger 2016, 172). During the roughly 12-14 year period when Jewish Christians were absent from Rome, the church there took on a decidedly gentile character, but when the Jewish Christians began returning after Claudius’ death, conflict between the two groups ensued (ibid.). One of the issues in that conflict was the meaning and application of certain Old Testament laws, thus Paul needed to deal with how gentiles–who had a different view of the meaning and purpose of the Law–could coexist with Jews within the same congregation (ibid., 172-173).
We can adapt this perspective to questions of civil government if we substitute Christians for Jews and gentiles for non-Christians within the wider political community. For at least the last two decades, Christians have been systematically and intentionally excluded or marginalized when it comes to politics and policy in the United States and in the wider West. This is ironic, at the very least, because the ideas and concepts that give rise to the West generally and to the United States particularly derive in large part from ideas and concepts native to the Christian worldview (Skinner 2013). For the Jews returning to Rome in the first century, it was difficult for them to understand how the gentile Christians could still be called Christian while ignoring so much in the Jewish law upon which the gospel rests. For Christians in the twenty-first century, it is equally hard for them to understand how so many Americans can claim to appreciate the ideals of American classical liberalism without recognizing the Christian foundations upon which those ideals depend.
Paul’s approach in the opening chapters of Romans was to find some reconciliation between these two groups. He sought that reconciliation by making some important points. The primary point is that regardless of whether one was a Jewish Christian or a gentile Christian, the center and focus of Christian faith is Jesus Christ and the gospel: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:16-17). What was important for Paul was faith in the gospel. How one arrived at that faith was, ultimately, immaterial. For the Jew, faith in Jesus came via the Law because Jesus ultimately and definitively fulfills the Law both in letter and in spirit (Matt 5:17-20). For the gentile, faith in Jesus came via the natural law, since the concept of natural law and its moral and virtuous requirements were well known among the gentiles, as exemplified by the references to Seneca above (c.f., Acts 17:16-34). The Jews could not understand why or how gentiles could be obedient without reference to the revelation of Torah. The gentiles could not understand why Jews insisted on making reference to the Torah when the requirements of morality and virtue explicated by the Torah could be known without making reference to it (c.f., Rom 2:25-29).
We have a similar case before us in the politics of twenty-first century America, at least in an ideal sense. Some Christians cannot understand how America could possibly be a virtuous and moral nation without making explicit reference to the Bible and Christian theology. Non-Christians insist that a religious foundation for American ideals is not necessary. In a sense, they’re both wrong and what’s needed is some sort of reconciliation like what Paul sought in the Roman church.
This idea of reconciliation brings me back to the point of the post: the telos of civil government according to Paul in Romans 13:1-7. That telos, or end, is one in which the government punishes wickedness and rewards good. In our current social environment, we are confronted with a government that has inversed this telos. Governments at all levels in the United States are engaged in the active promotion of wickedness in various forms.
The United States government openly advocates for the killing of unborn children by adopting the view that abortion is necessary healthcare for women and then uses money extracted from the people via taxation to fund this killing.
The United States government openly advocates for and supports ideas that contribute to the destruction and breakdown of the family. This includes the use of taxpayer money to provide transgender and drag-queen events at U.S. military installations, and the use of taxpayer money to fund Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), which teaches concepts about sexuality that are blatantly harmful to children by, at the very least, discrediting parents as the primary sources of knowledge and socialization related to sex and sexuality.
The United States government, and the elite actors within it, practice various forms of corruption, dishonest dealing, and use power and position to unethically gain wealth and influence. And that’s just in reference to American involvement in Ukraine, and its implications are not confined to just one of the two major political parties.
At the state level, we see similar things happening, in many ways as a result of federal funding. The use of federal funding at the state level, like the use of federal funding of private non-profits, is a means to control how that funding is spent (Monypenny 2013). And often times, more often than most members of the public realize, these are also means by which local and state policies come to be influenced by non-American, international actors. In many cases, federal dollars are used to manipulate the American federal system into compliance with international treaties and other federal policy objectives (c.f., Felizardo 2016; Walters 2013).
I don’t want to get sidetracked by a discussion of federalism and international policymaking, but I mention these things for a reason. Governments are clearly not operating within the narrow scope of their mandate as explained by the New Testament. They are clearly no longer interested in the restraint of wickedness, both domestically and internationally. This, rather than some ostensibly Christian theory, ought to be our starting point in discussing what Christians should be doing to influence government.
If the point of government, insofar as it is granted authority by God, is to restrain wickedness and reward good, then Christians ought to be starting from that point, not some mythologized, natural, prelapsarian origins for the state. This is the place to begin not only because it takes Scripture at its word, but because it is an open door for discussing and advocating for biblical morals and virtues. The extent of the wickedness being practiced by governments, those who influence governments, and those who are trying to influence the public on behalf of governments is on full display, undeniable, and blatantly obvious. As I’ve argued before, this–ironically enough–is an opportunity for the gospel. But that doesn’t mean that we Christians should take the reins of power and forcibly Christianize the government, or the society it governs.
In Rome, where Jews and gentiles were brought together by the gospel, we can glean another lesson. Remember, the center and focus of the gospel is Jesus. The Jews of Rome were brought to faith in Jesus through the Law and, in Paul’s reconciliation, could witness to the effects of the spirit working through natural law in the hearts of the gentiles. The gentiles were brought to faith in Jesus through the natural law and, by their faith in Jesus, came to appreciate the Law of the Jews for its preparatory work and witness to the gospel. A similar dynamic needs to take place in American government and the ways in which Christians approach both political theory, philosophy, and theology and the practical politics of making and implementing policy. This can only happen if Christians begin with an understanding of the end–the telos–of government.
Like the benevolent influence of Seneca on the soon-to-be tyrant Nero, Christians can exert a benevolent influence by pointing non-Christians, who can clearly distinguish between right and wrong and see the wickedness on display in our society, towards the answers and solutions they’re looking for. In so doing, Christians should trust that the Spirit of God, and the desire for good government–one that actually punishes, rather than rewards wickedness–will lead them to the foundations of the system that has been exploited. That foundation, of course, is the liberty that can only come with virtue and morality. In so doing, they will be prepared to understand, in the words of John Adams, that “[o]ur Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” That he was correct is now evident. How to apply it may not be, and Christians can be and ought to be leaders in helping others discover how.
Determinative in this case is a recognition that, in Paul’s remarks in Romans 13, and consistently with the necessarily postlapsarian origins of the state, it is clear that this telos is perfectible, in the theoretical sense, insofar as it is conceivable that a state that consistently and fairly punishes wickedness and rewards good can be achieved. This is not a utopian ideal but a realist one. It is not utopian because it does not claim that wickedness or its consequences–like poverty, inequality, crime, and other forms of social ills–can be eliminated. Rather, it claims that wickedness can be consistently, fairly, and judiciously punished. If such a state were not achievable, then the Bible would not presume these duties to be justification for the state. This, of course, is in contradistinction to ideal theories–to include Case for Christian Nationalism–that incorrectly and unscripturally presume that perfection in the eschatological sense is achievable.
Bahnsen, Greg L. 2020. By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today. Nacogdoches, TX and Powder Springs, GA: Covenant Media Press and American Vision.
Budziszewski, J. 2017. The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction, Second Paperback Edition. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books.
Felizardo, Carlo. 2016. “The Modern Treaty-Executing Power: Constitutional Complexities in Contemporary Global Governance.” Northwestern University Law Review 110 (5): 1235-1268. https://northwesternlawreview.org/issues/the-modern-treaty-executing-power-constitutional-complexities-in-contemporary-global-governance/.
Keener, Craig S. 2014. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Second Edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Kruger, Michael J., ed. 2016. A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
Monypenny, Phillip. 2013. “Federal Grants-in-Aid to State Governments: A Political Analysis.” In American Intergovernmental Relations: Foundations, Perspectives, and Issues, 5th Edition, edited by Laurence J. O’Toole, Jr. and Robert K. Christensen, 180-185. Los Angeles: Sage/CQ Press.
Seneca. 2004. Letters from a Stoic. Translated and edited by Robin Campbell. New York and London: Penguin Classics.
Skinner, Quentin. 2013. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Volume 2: The Age of Reformation. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Stacey, Peter. 2011. “The Sovereign Person in Senecan Political Theory.” Republics of Letters 2, no. 2 (March 11, 2011). https://arcade.stanford.edu/rofl/sovereign-person-senecan-political-theory.
Walters, Jonathan. 2013. “Intergovernmental Relations and Federalism: Its Past, Present and Future, and Does Anyone Care?” In American Intergovernmental Relations: Foundations, Perspectives, and Issues, 5th Edition, edited by Laurence J. O’Toole, Jr. and Robert K. Christensen, 384-392.