More on Theocracy (Updated)

A brief response to Micah Burke. He’s unhappy that I want to exclude theocrats and Baptists from the definition of the adjective “Reformed” and he argues, in effect, that I’m being selective.

I’ve explained at great length here why those who deny our covenant theology, our hermeneutics, and our doctrine of the sacraments are not Reformed. All the Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries teach paedobaptism and denounce the rejection of paedobaptism. See this resource page See also this post for example. See this category of posts.

It was not I, however, who revised the Westminster Confession or the Belgic Confession. The American Presbyterian church revised the WCF and the Dutch and American Reformed churches revised the Belgic on theocracy. Those were ecclesiastical acts not the expression of mere private opinion. There is a fundamental distinction between public, ecclesiastical action and private theological writings. The latter inform the former but do not have the same status as the former. That’s why knowing the personal views of the framers of the confessions is important but not definitive. Many (but not necessarily all) of the Westminster Divines held to something like 6/24 creation but the confession has to be received as it is confessed by particular denominations. The Scots had to receive the WCF and interpret it regarding polity. The American Presbyterians, since the 19th century, haven’t received the WCF to require that one hold 6/24 creation. I explained in Recovering the Reformed Confession why 6/24 creation is a poor boundary marker for determining Reformed orthodoxy.

At the same time, Reformed theology has never been entirely static.
That’s why RRC is not a plea to go backward (chronologically or theologically to some perceived “golden age”) but to be Reformed (as defined by our confessions) in our time. We need to recover what we confess in order to go forward and to fulfill our God-given vocation to the church and to be about the mission of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples.

It is an historical and theological fact that the Reformed churches abandoned theocracy without doing the least bit of damage to our theology, piety, or practice. Indeed, it’s been a positive development. We rid ourselves of the last vestiges of Constantinianism or Christendom. Some things are inherent to Reformed theology and some are not. Theocracy was not a necessary implication of Reformed theology. It was not implied by our doctrines of Scripture, God, man, Christ, salvation, church, or last things.

Indeed, the Reformed churches, in most places in the West, came to see that it was, in important ways, antithetical to what we confess regarding the nature of the church. It simply was not possible for most us to see the tension between theocracy and what we confess until we had gained enough distance from Christendom. Assumptions fall hard. During the 16th and 17th centuries most Christians simply assumed that it was God’s will for the magistrate to enforce the first table of the Decalogue. The only people who questioned it had so much baggage themselves that it was most difficult for orthodox Protestants to re-think this issue.

Part of the difficulty is that, in informal ways, Christendom has continued to possess a powerful hold on American Christians. This is ironic, given the revolutionary history of this country, but it is the case. Most Protestants, liberal AND conservative, simply assumed that they had a privileged place in society. That assumption of privilege was not really shaken until the 1960s when it started to become clear that the foundations of the old liberal Protestant hegemony were rotten and people left the mainline churches for the warmth and comfort of their beds or golf courses or symphonies on Sundays.

True to their native impulses, however, religious “conservatives” continued to attempt to preserve their privileged status even as the nation was quickly becoming culturally post-Christian. Now, in a time when most evangelicals want nothing more than a seat “at the table,” as they say, we have the odd sight of a handful of noisy “Christian reconstructionist” and ostensibly Reformed theocrats pounding their shoes on the table demanding that the magistrate enforce the first table of the decalogue.

Apparently these some neo-Kuyperians didn’t get the memo. Abraham Kuyper abandoned Constantinianism decades ago. He repudiated theocracy so vehemently that he said that if being a Reformed required him to be a theocrat, he would no longer be Reformed. The American Presbyterians made a number of changes in the late 18th century. Some of them were unhappy (largely abandoning the psalter, introducing instruments in worship) but their rejection of theocracy should be judged a blessed advance.

The question comes: How can one argue for the retention of Calvin’s two-kingdoms distinction but not his theocratic politics? The answer is that the latter is not inherent to Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Our doctrine of divine sovereignty does not require that Nero enforce the first table. Did the Apostles fail in their vocation as God’s spokesmen? Why did they not demand that Nero or Claudius do their duty and enforce the first table? Can any reasonable person find any such teaching in the NT? Of course not because it is not there. The early church knew nothing of theocracy. It was only after Constantine and after we began to have a privileged position (not immediately but over time) in society that we began to confuse the two kingdoms and expect the magistrate to enforce the first table.

The distinction between the church as God’s spiritual kingdom, with the keys to an eternal city and the common sphere under God’s general providence is basic to Reformed theology. Both are under God’s sovereign dominion, both are under his providence, both are under his control, both are administered according to divine revelation. The magistrate is obligated to govern society equitably, to enforce justice for all his citizens. This is how Paul writes in Romans and elsewhere. The magistrate is not autonomous. He is obligated to God for the discharge of his office. He is not, however, obligated to Christians nor is he obligated to the church per se. In distinction, the visible church is obligated to live under God’s Word and to exercise a spiritual, not a civil, ministry. This is the clear teaching of Scripture and it is what we confess.

It is becoming apparent that the most shrill critics of the two kingdoms analysis of the relations between Christ and culture are theocrats. Underneath the misguided call to go back to theocracy is a desire to return to a time and place when Protestants had a place of privilege in our culture and in society. That time and place is long gone. The USA is now almost 20% hispanic. A large majority of those immigrants are Roman Catholic. There is evidence of a resurgence of Romanism across North America. In some places the Muslim population continues to grow. Atheism and agnosticism continue to grow.

The proper response to these challenge is not to attempt to reassert Constantinianism but to get down to the business of being confessionally Reformed. We have churches to plant and a gospel to preach. We have sacraments and discipline to administer and fruitful civil lives to lead in the common sphere. We cannot speak the good news of a suffering Savior with one hand an a (rhetorical) Constantinian sword in the other. This is not the 13th century. We know now that when our Lord said “compel them to come in” he did not intend for us to go on a crusade. We’re not dispensationalists are we? We know that there is no such thing as a “holy land.” All that expired with Christ’s death (WCF 19).

Meanwhile our cities are teeming with immigrants, many of whom don’t speak English. What are we doing to set free those captives from popish superstition? Pointless arguments about returning to theocracy get us nowhere. On the other end of the spectrum, singing “Shine, Jesus Shine” is just as pointless. The real alternative we offer to both our new Romanist neighbors and our confused evangelical friends is neither to try to be like them nor is it to attempt to marginalize them politically. It is to be authentically, confessionally Reformed in our theology, piety, and practice and in that we be a genuine alternative to both.

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