Reformation Day 2008
Reformation day this year comes just four days before a national, presidential election. It is quite a fitting occasion to consider the impact of the Reformation on the theory and practice of Statecraft. By Statecraft I mean the organization and management of the political or civil State. Let us start at the beginning and follow the development of political ideas from Ancient times forward.
In the most Ancient times there were two basic modes of political organization. In the first case we have the example of Ancient Israel. Religious authority was vested in a Priesthood. Political authority was vested in a multi-tiered structure of “leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens” (Dt. 1:15). Thus, political authority and religious authority were separate and parallel. That is, neither one was ultimate over the other. The Prophet spoke the Word of God to both the Priest and the King, demonstrating that God Himself is the ultimate authority and that human bureaucracies of authority are parallel in their subordination to God’s Word. This was a great social, political and religious truth. God Himself rules over everything; there is no authority in human life that rules over everything. All types of human authority must bow equally to the ultimate authority of God. In history the Ancient Hebrews had only sporadic and brief episodes of actual practice of the ideal. Much of the time they forgot God and were enticed away into the other kind of Ancient politics.
The other sort of political organization in the most Ancient times was absolute dictatorship or oligarchy, such as in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. In these cases there was no separation or subordination of authority. The ruling person or cadre assumed all authority. Prophet, Priest and King was a single man. Religious authority and Political authority were identical. Thus, the Babylonian sort of ruler presented himself to his populace as a kind of incarnation of god, because he claimed the authority of god within himself. Though Ancient pagans worshipped the sun, the moon, Jupiter, and so on, still the being and will of such gods was indistinguishable from the being and will of the ruling oligarchy, who declared the will of the gods to the masses. Ancient dictators commanded the worship of their people. For example, in the Book of Daniel Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden idol and demanded the people worship it. When the three Hebrews defied him, he warned them saying, “what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?” (Dan. 3:15)
About 500 years before the birth of Christ a new outlook emerged in the Grecian Isles. Thinkers made the bold suggestion that there was nothing inherent in the Priest or King that was not also inherent in the common man. Their conviction was that people did not have to listen to some kind of mystical authority, but any man could think for himself and discern physical, spiritual, and moral reality. One of these thinkers, Protagoras, phrased this conviction in a concise expression that is familiar to many hearers to this day: “Man is the measure of all things.” The idea was that Man - not a particular man, but generic Man, any man - could determine for himself the nature of reality and the course of his life. This conviction launched Ancient Greek philosophy and produced a great variety of insights into all kinds of abstract questions. But it was not at all clear how the Protagorean formula could take shape as social or political order. If everyone determines truth and life for himself, then there is no practical means of settling conflicts. At the height of Ancient Greek philosophy both Plato and Aristotle dealt with this practical difficulty. Determination of truth, they concluded, really cannot be left to generic Man. The pronouncements of an obvious moron cannot be placed on a par with those of a genius. Plato proposed that everything ought to be governed by “philosopher-kings.” Aristotle laid out the reasoning most clearly. He suggested that “wisdom” really is the measure of all things, and that man is the measure only insofar as he has wisdom.
Now this was starting to sound like the old Babylonian dictator all over again: an elite cadre of “wise” men rule everything. What about the noble quest of the individual? The Greeks could not scrap the vision of Protagoras altogether. They ended up wanting to go two ways at once. On the one hand they wanted to hold on to the ideal of generic man - any man - thinking for himself. On the other hand they could not deny that the thoughts of a wise man are weightier than the thoughts of a fool. Trying to organize both of these convictions into one coherent political system, Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations experimented with various types of democracies or republics. However, all of their attempts were grounded in their uncompromising humanism, which insisted that authority can rise no higher than some word of human origin. So, they never could produce a true social order of parallel human authorities mutually subordinated to the ultimate authority of God. If men do not bow before God as the only ruler of everything, then there is no way to escape the tension of either everyone serves an absolute dictator or else everyone does what is right in his own eyes. The humanistic outlook therefore is doomed to cyclical episodes of dictatorship and anarchy.
The Western world was in the grip of the absolute dictatorship of Caesar at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. Caesar claimed all religious and political authority in himself. In typical fashion he also claimed the worship of the populace. Acknowledging no God above himself, to whom he must bow, he effectively presented himself as yet another pretended incarnation of the divine. Thus, Jesus Christ represented the most direct and comprehensive challenge to Caesar that is possible to imagine. For Jesus truly was the incarnation of God, and truly combined in Himself alone the ultimate authority of Prophet, Priest, and King. There was not room enough in the world for both of them, for only one can be God incarnate, the ultimate authority for all aspects of life. The apostate Jews of the first century had a Romish idea of authority. Therefore, the person and ministry of Jesus Christ was a challenge to them as well. Playing the system, their case to their Roman overlords for the crucifixion of Jesus was to emphasize the challenge He presented to the rule of Caesar. This is most clearly laid out in the Gospel of John 19:12-15: “…the Jews cried out saying, ‘If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.’ When Pilate therefore heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat…and he said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’ They therefore cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’” The earliest creedal formula among Christians was the simple affirmation: “Jesus is Lord.” Amid all of the richness of meaning embodied in this simple statement is the definite implication: Caesar is not Lord. The first century Christians were persecuted and killed by the Romans not because of some kind of shallow prejudice, but for treason. Their confession was a bold and direct challenge to the authority of Caesar.
The humanist pendulum arced over to the other side, and through a series of events during the early to mid 5th Century AD the empire of Rome fell into the chaos of revolution. About this same time Augustine made political application of the Christian idea of Law and authority. In his treatise, The City of God, he contrasts the grandeur of Christian Doctrine and application with Greek philosophy and the disintegration of Rome. He clearly expounded the Law of God as an expression of the eternal Will of God (Bk. X, ch. 7). He declared that God Himself is “the foundation of all justice,” (Bk. I, ch. 21) and asserted that, “true justice has no existence save in that republic whose founder and ruler is Christ.” (Bk. II, ch. 21) The Council of Chalcedon met in 451 AD and pronounced on a doctrinal controversy at that time concerning the incarnation of Christ. The Ancient Church Councils did not invent new ideas. They declared the truth of what the Church always believed as focused upon particular errors of their time. The Church at the time of Chalcedon was heavily influenced by Greek ideas. Recall that the Greek outlook was saddled with the tension between Protagoras and Aristotle - that on the one hand everyone declares what is right in his own eyes, and on the other hand only the wise can be trusted to discern what is right. The Greek outlook expected that a spark of divinity somehow resided in human life, but was stuck in the tension of the diversity of thinking individuals vs. the unity of a kingdom under an absolute ruler. Christians were sure that Christ embodied the spark of divinity in human life, but argued in a Greek-like fashion over how this was done. Some said that Christ really was a man who only seemed to be God. Others said that He really was God who only seemed to be man. Still others said that Christ was a man who acquired a Divine Nature that blended with his human nature. At Chalcedon it was clarified that in Christ there was united a human nature and a Divine nature, without confusion and without mingling. Rushdoony has pointed out how this Creed expounded the doctrinal underpinnings of Augustine’s political ideas. The Creator is distinct from the creature, and remains distinct, without the mingling of natures, even in the Person of Christ, the incarnation of God. This concept forms the basis for political authority that does not pretend to embody divine authority, but bows in subordination to divine authority.
Following the collapse of the Roman empire a feudal system emerged in Europe that was shaped to some degree by the Christian influence. Instead of all roads leading to Rome, the seat of dictatorship, Europe consisted of numerous decentralized domains. In the feudal domains of the Middle Ages we see once again a social structure that approached the biblical ideal of the leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. The reign of Charlemagne furthered this structure, which is a principal contrast between Charlemagne and Caesar. However, the Christian influence in this era was much less than perfect, as the Church too quickly abandoned consistent application of the Chalcedonian idea and reverted once again to a Greek outlook, which sought to embody Divine authority in human institutions. Whereas, under Caesar the State ruled over the Church, now in the Middle Ages it was the Church that ruled over the State. The rulers of the Church developed a kind of hierarchy of authority: the Church needs to listen to God, and the world needs to listen to the Church. It was Pope Leo, ruler of the Church, who crowned Charlemagne to be king. Thus, there emerged the Roman idea that the Church is a co-authority with God - that the Church is God’s means and agent on earth. As Van Til has pointed out, effectively the Roman idea is that the Church is the continuation of the incarnation because the Church was thought to embody the authority of God. In this context the idea of a Christian State was the State that fulfilled the will of the Church. This was the political idea that was prevalent at the time of the Reformation.
The Reformation - launched by the actions of Martin Luther on this date 491 years ago - chiefly concerned controversies of Church polity and doctrine. In order to address these concerns, Luther, Calvin and others laid a firm foundation in the idea of the supremacy of the Bible alone as the Word, Law and authority of God. In his Institutes, Bk. IV, Ch. X, § 7, Calvin cites James 4:12, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy…”, and Isaiah 33:22, “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; He will save us,” and comments that, “Both passages show that the power of life and death is his who has jurisdiction over the soul. Indeed, James clearly declares this. Further, no man can take this to himself. We ought, therefore, to acknowledge God as sole ruler of souls, with whom alone is the power to save and to destroy, as those words of Isaiah declare that he is at once ruler and judge and lawgiver and savior…it is unlawful to transfer to man what God reserves for himself.” The Reformation restored the full standard of Chalcedon: there is no mingling of the Divine and human natures. This formed the bedrock concept of the Creator / creature distinction. God, as Creator, is free. The Roman idea was that God responds to reality; the Reformed idea was that God determines reality. He is free to determine reality to be whatever He should will. The Roman idea was that God says what He does because reality is what it is; the Reformed idea is that reality is what it is because God says what He does. Therefore God’s authority is absolute over all of reality, and human authority must at all points be in subordination to God.
Beyond various Church controversies, such as indulgences and justification, the Reformed idea of God’s Law was effective also in leading to the reformation of social and political order. Since Divine Nature does not blend with human nature, therefore kings are equally subject to the Law of God as are peasants. This conviction acquired great cultural force and sparked social and intellectual movements across Europe. Reaction was rather visceral at first, such as the massacre of French Huguenots in 1572. But with the persistence of the Reformational movement, political argument grew more sophisticated. Samuel Rutherford’s treatise, Lex Rex - the Law is King - eloquently protested the notion of the “Divine right of Kings.” Persistent also was persecution of protestants, which was ongoing in England until the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Emigrations that occurred as a direct result of these persecutions lead to the formation of the United States of America. The government of this land was constituted squarely upon the Reformational conviction that God Himself, via His Law, is the ruler of everything, and not the Church or the King.
The Reformed idea of Lex Rex saw further development in the 19th Century in Abraham Kuyper’s concept of “Sphere Sovereignty.” This concept was further developed in the 20th Century by Herman Dooyeweerd. Simply put, the concept of Sphere Sovereignty posits that human life may be divided into theoretical aspects such as individual, family, church, state, school, economy or trade, and the like. The idea is that these various aspects of life may be thought of as spheres, within which an order of authority operates independently of the other spheres. The Church cannot dictate policies of home life for every family; a man cannot rule parentally over everyone under his employ; the State cannot decree what shall and shall not be spoken from the pulpit, and so on. Thus, it is said that each order of authority is sovereign within its own sphere. A common misunderstanding of Sphere Sovereignty is to suppose that the various spheres are to be arranged somehow concentrically. This is a terrible mistake. The spheres of life are not by any means concentric, but are perfectly parallel in their mutual subordination to the Law of God. To attempt ordering the spheres concentrically is to deny the whole idea of Sphere Sovereignty. The whole idea is that there is no aspect of human life that rules everything. There is no sphere of human authority that rightly may rule over the others. God alone rules over everything by His Word and His Law. Each sphere of human authority is sovereign with respect to the others, and all are to be mutually subordinated to the over-arching and ultimately sovereign rule of God.
The general cultural mood of America today is a retreat from the Reformation and reversion to the Greek ideas. Instead of separate spheres of life equally bowing before the Law of God, we see the old Greek and Roman pretense to embody a god-like power in a ruling cadre. A clear example of this is presented on a recent cover of Time Magazine (October 6, 2008). A caption reads, “Who Can Rescue The Economy?” and below is a type of ballot listing John McCain, Barack Obama, and “None of the above.” Next to each name is included a photo of the man. Next to “None of the above” appears a thumbnail of Edvard Munch’s famous painting titled “The Scream.” The clear implication is that if neither McCain nor Obama can rescue “the economy,” then no rescue is possible. Under an essentially Greek idea of life, the political sphere enlarges to control everything. Time Magazine is confident that its readership will simply assume along with them that there must be a political answer to an economic problem, or else there is no answer. Now, the God of all creation has assured us that it is He Himself who gives us power to make wealth (Dt. 8:18). In Deuteronomy chapter 28 Moses explained at great length to the people of Israel that their prosperity depended directly upon their faithfulness to God and to His Law. To suggest that “the economy” is hopeless unless some man should be found with the power to save it is nothing less than idolatry. Granted, this magazine cover does not represent these men as personally claiming god-like powers, but represents others attributing god-like powers to them. In that case, what would be the proper response of a truly godly man? The New Testament furnishes us with examples of both Herod and Paul being falsely esteemed as gods. Their starkly contrasting responses provide us guidance in how to evaluate the magazine cover.
In Acts 12:21-23 we read of Herod: “And on an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them. And the people kept crying out, ‘The voice of a god and not of a man!’ And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died.” In contrast to this let us consider Paul in Acts 14:9-15: “This man was listening to Paul as he spoke, who, when he had fixed his gaze upon him, and had seen that he had faith to be made well, said with a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And he leaped up and began to walk. And when the multitudes saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have become like men and have come down to us.’ And they began calling Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priests of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. But when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out and saying, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them.”
In our day the same idolatry is at work that we see in these accounts in the book of Acts. America has turned away from God, and in turning away from God there is nowhere to turn except to idols. The idolatry of our day is not so concrete as in Ancient times. We do not have political rulers overtly claiming to be the incarnation of God, nor do we have slavish populations offering sacrifices of bulls and goats to them. No, in our day idolatry is much more civilized and sophisticated. But it is idolatry all the same. This cover of Time Magazine is clear idolatry in that it suggests that a man with god-like power will “rescue the economy,” or else it will not be rescued. It presents the modern, sophisticated version of the people crying out, “the gods have become like men and have come down to us!” By implication this cover denies God by looking only to our own hand for the power to make wealth, and staking prosperity on ourselves or on the elite who will save us. Have McCain and Obama responded to this adulation in a way that is more like Herod or more like Paul? Where is the tearing of robes?