When Theodosius I (AD 347–95) took the throne in AD 379, no one knew how profoundly the next 1,500 years of Christian history would be affected (and effected) by his promulgation of the decree (AD 380) to make Christianity the state religion of the empire. We often speak of Constantinian Christianity, I myself have done it many times. Though Constantine legalized Christianity, convoked the first Council of Nicea (AD 325), and involved himself in the life of the church by suppressing heresy, he did not actually make Christianity the state religion. He set the trajectory, but it was Theodosius who, if you will, pulled the trigger. This fact is useful to know because there were centuries during which the church was not established by the state as the official religion. So, it is demonstrably true that it is not inherent to Christianity to be established as the state religion. Our Lord Jesus established no state church and neither did his apostles. None of the fathers of the first, second, or third centuries called for the establishment of the church as the state religion. Indeed, when Justin Martyr did speak to the magistrate in the AD 150s he asked that the church be left alone. He promised that the churches would discipline sinners more harshly than the state would.
It is also a fact, however, that the magisterial Protestants and their orthodox successors accepted as a given. They were all theocrats. They assumed that an established church was part of the natural order. That assumption was understandable. After all, by the time Martin Luther achieved his Protestant convictions (1521), the church had been established for 1,140 years. In 1521 everyone knew that the Earth was at the center of the universe (geocentrism). We thought that we knew a great number of things, even as an equally great number of things long held to be true were being brought into doubt. Was it true that priests had to be celibate? Was it true that Peter was the first pope and that he had transmitted that authority to successive Roman bishops? Was it true that Constantine had donated authority over the civil magistrate to the papacy? Was it true that we are being gradually justified and saved by grace and cooperation with grace? Did “this is my body” signify that, at consecration, the elements of the Holy Supper literally become the body and blood of Christ? What about the Avignon Popes and the dozens of the other so-called anti-Popes? What if the Roman Bishop was not the earthly head of the church after all? What if there was never any papacy in the apostolic church or in the second century? Was there really an unwritten tradition transmitted from the Apostles to their successors?
Before the Renaissance and Reformation, theological students, law students, and others relied on collections of quotations for their knowledge of what the Fathers had said. Theologians in the West mostly read the Vulgate. Acts 2:38 says, “do penance,” but the Greek text does not say that. It says, “repent.” If the Vulgate was wrong about that translation, what else was it wrong about? There were medieval interpretations of Scripture (the glosses) which were to be accepted. The Renaissance scholars became dissatisfied with those glosses and those collections of opinions (e.g., the Sentences) and, with the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 Greek texts became more widely available in the West. This availability stimulated a renewed study of primary sources generally.
Humanist and Protestant scholars were not only reading the Scriptures in the original languages, but they were also reading the Fathers in the original languages. They were not finding what had been reported to them—for example, the ancient church did not use icons of Christ. Indeed, before the seventh century, the church was adamantly opposed to them. They did not find the elaborate liturgy which they had known, nor did they find the Fathers teaching in much of what they had been taught was accepted Roman Catholic theology, piety, and practice.
In science, Copernicus (d. 1543), Brahe (d. 1601), Kepler (d. 1630), and, of course, Galileo (d. 1642) and others overturned a conviction held by pagans and Christians alike for millennia: that the sun revolves around the earth.
Despite the intellectual revolution roiling churches and academy across Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (perhaps even because of that revolution), both Roman and magisterial Protestant Christians held fast to certain long-held convictions. These were things that everyone, pagan and Christian alike, had long thought to be true. Among these was that there must be an established religion, and it was self-evident to all rational people that religion must be Christian. The only question is which of the Christian religions would dominate? From the Peace of Augsburg (1555), city-states and other political entities in the Holy Roman Empire could be Lutheran or Roman Catholic. This settlement left some important questions unanswered—for example, what is the status of the Reformed Churches. In 1559, Frederick III would succeed Otto Henry as Elector of the Palatinate. By 1560, he was calling Calvinist theologians to serve the Palatinate. Lutheran and Roman Catholic electors were troubled, and war seemed likely. It was averted at Maulbronn in 1564, but tensions remained. Philip II (1527–98), a rabid Romanist, succeeded Charles V in 1556. A little over a decade later he would be at war with the Netherlands. So deep was his hatred of the Protestants that he bankrupted Spain three times in his attempt to wipe them out. He murdered about 12,000 Reformed Christians in the Netherlands in the 1560s and 70s. In 1572, in an orgy of anti-Reformed fervor, French Romanists murdered about 30,000 Reformed Christians in Paris and in outlying areas. The French Wars of Religion lasted for more than thirty years (1562–98). The Dutch refer to the Eighty Years War (1566–1648). Protestants responded by forming a league, and an all-out international religious war seemed inevitable. It finally began in 1618 and lasted until 1648, but there were other religious wars during and after the Thirty Years War: the Huguenot Rebellion (1621–29), and the English Civil War (1642–51). There were wars between the Dutch and the English (1650s), in what we think of as Italy against the Waldensians (1655–90), in Scotland (ask a Covenanter about the “Killing Times”), Ireland, in England, among the Swiss, and between France and the Netherlands et al in the so-called Nine Years War at the end of the century. The seventeenth century was in nearly constant religious warfare. We may be ignorant of those conflicts today, but the American founders were not. That history weighed heavily on their minds as they considered the possibility of a new republic in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Those wars were driven, at least in part, by the conviction that there must be an established church. In the 2020s we all know certain things too. Our culture thinks it knows that anyone has a right to marry anyone else, that biological sex is a construct, that gender is fluid, and that humans were born with an unalienable right to express their inner selves, whatever those may be at any given moment.
So, it is true that in the original versions of the magisterial Protestant confessions, the Protestants confessed the necessity of an established church. Just as the new astronomy had removed the earth from the center of things, the Americans came to doubt the accepted wisdom that there had to be an established church. The astronomers rejected geocentrism because it did not explain what they were finding in their calculations. The Americans likewise found that the established church did not explain the evidence of history, the early church, or the New Testament. So, the American Presbyterians, to pick one example, revised their confessions. It would take longer for the Dutch Reformed in the Christian Reformed Church to revise Article 36 of the Belgic Confession. We no longer ask the magistrate to establish Christianity as the state religion.
Is theocracy (i.e., a state-established religion) the essence of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice in such a way that to reject it is to give up the right to call oneself Reformed? Crawford Gribben and Chris Caughey argued this case in On Being Reformed: Debates Over A Trans-Atlantic Identity (2018). I responded in the negative in that same volume. I cannot repeat the entire reply here, but the core of my argument is that the establishmentarian view is as peripheral to our theology, piety, and practice as geocentrism was. The core of our theology, piety, and practice was our view of Scripture, God, Man, Christ, Salvation, Church (and sacraments), Eschatology, and the Christian Life (i.e., Christian ethics). Our doctrine under those loci (places) has not changed. We still confess the same high view of Scripture, we still teach the Augustinian view of sin, the Reformed Christology, the Reformation doctrines of grace, the Reformed ecclesiology and sacramentology, eschatology, and the Christian life as we have always done.
According to J. H. Alsted (1588–1638), the article of the standing or falling of the church is the doctrine of justification sola gratia, sola fide—not theocratic politics. Our churches spent relatively little space on theocratic politics. We spilled a lot more ink on the doctrines preceding and following the usually brief treatment of theocratic politics.
To say that theocratic politics are of the essence of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice (the Reformed confession) is to declare all of the American churches apostate. It is to say that we may never change our minds or revise our confession under any locus. It is to deny what we have always said about our confession: that it is subject to revision in light of God’s Word.
That is why those stubborn Dutchmen in the CRCNA finally acknowledged Abraham Kuyper’s anti-theocratic arguments. It took sixty years, but they did it. The URCNAs followed Kuyper a few years ago. It is impossible to write a coherent, biblically faithful case for theocratic politics from the New Testament (or from the Old Testament read as the New Testament intends for us to read it).
The core of our confession reflects the articles of our “undoubted holy catholic faith” (Heidelberg 22). Indeed, there was never any theocratic language in the Heidelberg Catechism. Was it apostate? That is absurd. Apostasy is marked by denying the gospel, the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ. Pelagianism is heresy according to the Synod of Dort but none of the American churches have decreed that the denial of theocracy is heresy. The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, once known as Covenanters, descended as they are from the Scottish Covenanters who suffered so at the hands of the English, are in ecclesiastical fellowship with multiple American denominations who reject theocratic politics. Have the Covenanters gone bad too? Or perhaps theocratic politics is just untenable?
© R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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