There is some excitement in some quarters over the question of whether the United Reformed Churches confess the revised or unrevised version of the Belgic Confession. There is no evidence from the minutes of the URCs, of which I’m aware, that speaks to this issue. Further, there seems to be a lack of awareness that Article 36 of Belgic Confession has been revised since the late 19th century. Here is an account of how the Belgic has been revised. Part 1, part 2 (and a Heidelcast). Since the early 20th century most Reformed Churches have repudiated the notion that the magistrate should enforce Christian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, there are some Reformed folk who’ve given up on the experiment of civil-religious pluralism and who want to go back to Constantinianism, the arrangement whereby the magistrate establishes a state church and enforces Christian orthodoxy. Ironically, if we read the 4th-century decrees associated with the legalization of the Christian church in the Roman empire, they did not establish the church nor did they enforce orthodoxy or punish heretics. They made it legal to be a Christian and they restored property to Christians that had been stolen from them. The state did endow some churches and it didn’t take long before there was a church-state complex which we know as Constantinianism. By the high middle ages it was virtually impossible to tell the Pope from a King and often princes were prelates.
The Constantinian church-state complex began to break down in the 17th century but the assumptions behind it were powerful and continued well into the 20th century. It is the assumption of Constantinianism that often lies behind talk of Christian America or America as a Christian nation. It is fact that several of the colonies had established churches and it is true that there were, for a time, state churches under the US Constitution but there was not a federal church by design of the the founding fathers. Over time existence of state churches was challenged and they were disestablished by the early 19th century. As modernity leavened the culture, Christianity was gradually displaced as the reigning paradigm. Some scholars of American religion have argued that America was predominantly “Christian” only for a brief period in the 19th century. For more on this see the essay on Sister Aimee in Always Reformed. Today, though Americans are still either Deist or Theistic and many still think of themselves as Christians, few are probably able to give a coherent account of the Christian faith or worldview.
Many Reformed folk who advocate for a return to some version of Constantinianism don’t seem to be aware of how it developed, that it was historically conditioned nor do they seem to be aware of how it often it backfired on the Reformed Churches. Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), however, was aware and was quite right about it.
That the acceptance and carrying out of this principle almost always has returned upon the heads of non-heretics and not the truth but heresy has been honored by the magistrate.
One of the more ironic evidences for Kuyper’s claim is the martyrdom of the author of the Belgic Confession, Guy de Bres. He was put to death in 1567 by the state because of his Protestantism. He has opportunity to resist and he did not. He was committed in principle to Constantinianism and it took his life. If we have to choose between Kuyper and the Constantinian, right-wing, neo-Kuyperians, we should side with Kuyper.
The other day, WSC student Tim Graham pointed me to a link by Joe Carter and thence to an essay by James Kalb, in the Catholic World Report, which argues for a return to Constantinianism. Kalb understands exactly what that means. He uses that very language to describe his proposal. He writes:
The Gospel is the Gospel, and to mention it is implicitly to bring in whatever is necessarily connected to it—including the Church. With that in mind, the principled objections to a Catholic society don’t stand up to much thought. All men are unjust, except maybe a few saints, most actual Catholics put their main efforts into worldly goals, and harsh things could be said about the Church as a human institution. It is nonetheless right for believers to think of themselves and their communities and institutions as Catholic, even though there may be some less-than-saintly things about them.
The interesting thing is that this is virtually identical to the way the case for neo-Constantinianism is being argued: it’s a consequence of the Gospel. If we’re to be consistent with a Christian view of the world, we must say that the Christian faith touches (transforms) everything and that means that there must also be Christian government. Kalb is a Romanist and so he wants a Romanist government.
A Catholic society could, for example, be liberal and democratic in many ways. Liberal goals and institutions are often good, but only up to a point and not as the highest standard. So the judiciary could be independent, accused persons could be tried by jury, high officials could be chosen by popular vote, and there could be extensive freedom of discussion and belief. The point is that pure choice would be limited by the public good, as it always is in one way or another, but the public good would be determined in a Catholic rather than techno-hedonistic sense.
By “liberal” he doesn’t mean political leftist, as the word is frequently used today. Rather, he means something like pluralist or tolerant. He’s sketching a vision in which the neo-Con Reformed folk would be tolerated. One wonders how the neo-Cons Reformed folk like those apples?
Or we could pay attention to history and realize that there are good reasons why we don’t want to return to the bloody religious wars that plagued the West for so long. Does anyone really want to turn the USA into Northern Ireland of the mid-20th century? On principle our paradigm should not be the 4th or 5th or 13th centuries but the 1st century. As Kuyper reminded us long ago, that the NT is utterly lacking even a shred of evidence that the apostles ever expected the magistrate to establish a church or enforce Christian orthodoxy.
That the Lord and the Apostles never called upon the help of the magistrate to kill with the sword the one who deviated from the truth. Even in connection with such horrible heretics as defiled the congregation in Corinth, Paul mentions nothing of this idea. And it cannot be concluded from any particular word in the New Testament, that in the days when particular revelation should cease, that the rooting out of heretics with the sword is the obligation of magistrates.
There is much not to like about modernity but since the 18th century at least we have been able see the error of Constantinianism. Calvin and others theorized that the Lord has instituted two spheres, one spiritual and one temporal, in which he administers his sovereignty. They theorized, however, in the context of powerful, virtually inescapable Constantinian assumptions. For them, it was not a matter of whether there would an established church but which church would be established. A little more than a century after the Thirty-Years War (1618–48) we began to see that it might be possible to make public space a shared realm, where the magistrate is an umpire who relies on the perspicuous laws (“We hold these truths to be self evident”) of nature for his rule book and where citizens are free to live out their Christian faith according to the dictates of conscience without civil interference or establishment.
It may well be, in late modernity, that the pendulum has swung the other way, that Christian socio-political advantage has turned to disadvantage and that is bound to provoke a reaction. The return to Constantinianism seems to be part of that reaction but it is a mistake. Christians should be engaged with the prevailing culture. We have a right to be concerned about whether we are once again becoming scapegoats. Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life talked about the phenomenon of abusing Christians in the popular media.
The correct response, however, is not to seek to re-acquire civil power over pagans and papists but to be good citizens, keep the social compact, and to point them to the King whose kingdom is not of this world but whose kingdom is most certainly in this world and is manifested by believers in their daily lives and officially represented by those divinely established embassies where his Word and covenants signs and seals are administered.