The theocratic impulse is truly ancient. All the pagan nations of the Ancient Near East had state religions. The Israelites, Egyptians, and Canaanites all had state religions, as did the Greeks and the Romans. The latter were particularly vicious in enforcing the state religion, revealing that the real Roman religion was never actually adherence to the pantheon or even to Caesar as a god, but conformity. The thing the pagan Romans hated most about the Christians was their refusal to conform outwardly to the Roman cultus (state religion) and culture by saying the required words (e.g., Caesar is Lord), by denouncing Jesus, and by sealing the confession with a ritual offering or sacrifice. For their refusal to conform to the prevailing Greco-Roman cultus and culture, Tacitus called the Christians “haters of humanity.”1
Obviously, the Romans were offended by the Christian adherence to a Jewish rabbi who had been crucified. This disgusted them. Anyone who had been crucified was, in their view, only worthy of scorn. They thought that the idea of a god becoming man was ludicrous. Some of the critics mocked the reliability of Scripture (in ways not too different from how the higher critics would attack Scripture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), but when they (e.g., Pliny the Younger) examined the Christians, they found them to be good citizens, obedient to Roman laws (except the law of religious conformity), and no threat to the empire. Justin Martyr (c. AD 150) promised the Romans that the Christians obeyed the secular Roman laws better than the Romans themselves. He invited the Romans to investigate the Christians and told the Romans to punish any Christian guilty of breaking the secular laws. In fact, he said, leave the lawbreaker to us and we will punish him more severely than you will.2 One wonders what sort of discipline Justin had in mind.
In his speech, or treatise, to the pagan Roman official Diognetus (c. AD 150), an anonymous Christian apologist wrote, “For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom.”3 The Christians were not like the Jews, who spoke an “unusual dialect” and practiced an “eccentric life-style.”4 They lived cheek by jowl “in both Greek and barbarian cities,” and followed “the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life.”5 What distinguished them was the “unusual character of their lives.” They shared everything but not their wives.6 They participated “in everything as citizens” but endured “everything as foreigners.” They were “aliens” in their own countries because every country was their “fatherland,” and “every fatherland is foreign.”7 They were punished for their faith but not for breaking the secular Roman laws.8 They were slandered and abused for no reason. They lived “on earth but their citizenship is in heaven.”9 The Christians obeyed “the established laws,” and “in their private lives they transcend” the secular Roman laws.10 The Romans hate them but their hatred is unreasonable.11 This is what the ill-informed call “radical” two kingdoms theology. The writer to Diognetus just called it Christianity.
Justin Martyr, the writer to Diognetus, and others, were asking the Empire to be allowed to distinguish between the sacred and the secular. According to Bernard Lewis, the Christians invented the idea of a secular state:
Secularism in the modern political meaning—the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated—is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teaching of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.
The older religions of mankind were all related to—were in a sense a part of—authority, whether of the tribe, the city, or the king. The cult provided a visible symbol of group identity and loyalty; the faith provided sanction for the ruler and his laws. Something of this pre-Christian function of religion survives, or reappears, in Christendom, where from time to time priests exercised temporal power, and kings claimed divine right even over the church. But these were aberrations from Christian norms, seen and reciprocally denounced as such by royal and clerical spokesmen. The authoritative Christian text on these matters is the famous passage in Matthew 22:21, in which Christ is quoted as saying, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Commentators have differed as to the precise meaning and intention of this phrase, but for most of Christian history it has been understood as authorizing the separate coexistence of two authorities, the one charged with matters of religion, the other with what we would nowadays call politics.
In this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. In imperial Rome Caesar was God, reasserting a doctrine that goes back to the god-kings of remote antiquity. Among the Jews, for whose beliefs Josephus coined the term “theocracy,” God was Caesar. For the Muslims, too, God was the supreme sovereign, and the caliph was his vice-gerent, “his shadow on earth.” Only in Christendom did God and Caesar coexist in the state, albeit with considerable development, variety, and sometimes conflict in the relations between them.12
Christianity was legalized under Constantine (AD 313), but it did not become the state religion of the Empire until AD 380 under Theodosius I. The fourth century marked a sea change. The Apostles did not ask the Roman government to institute Christianity as the state religion. Implicitly, as Lewis notes, they asked for a secular state.
Still, after 1,500 years of Christendom it is a hard habit to break, and it is to that habit that the mostly-Baptist authors of the Statement want to return. In article XIV, they call for not only the imposition of the second table of the Ten Commandments (i.e., commandments 5–10) to be enforced by the magistrate—which should be uncontroversial—but they want the American civil government to enforce the first table too. Here the Statement seems incoherent with itself since it, again, somewhat inconsistently provides two options regarding the first table of the moral law under article XI, which I discussed previously.
Under this article they affirm that “applying the core moral principle of each of the ten commandments” is “general equity.” There is no question whether the law has a general equity. It does. That general equity, according to a range of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers, is what is known about civil justice from nature. They called it natural law.
John Calvin, Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon et al. equated the Ten Commandments to the natural law. As to general equity, Franciscus Junius (1545–1602) wrote,
Moreover, the law of Moses is an example of the natural law, most suitably expressing the common notions of nature endowed by natural law. For the principles and conclusions of the natural law, that is, those common notions of nature, are perfectly expressed in the law of Moses. These common notions not only exist in the corrupted nature of man, but also existed in the pure and original nature.13
The Scottish Reformed theologian, Robert Rollock (c. 1555–1599) explained,
But yet they will insist further, and say, Is not this one of the judicial laws that was given to the Jews—then what have we to do with it? I answer, these laws, seeing the Jews, and their commonwealth, and laws politic, are abrogate, in so far as they concerned that people, we have nothing ado with them—they are abolished; but for as much as they are grounded upon nature, and natural law, we have ado with them. As for this law, it is natural. Ye know, that natural men, ethnics, who had never the law of the Jews, they executed the murderer.14
The Swiss Reformed theologian, Amandus Polanus (1561–1610) echoed the Reformed consensus:
Freedom from the laws of Moses, is that by which Christians are loosed from the ceremonial and Judicial laws of Moses, namely, so far forth as they only pertain to the civil government under Moses. 1. Cor. 9. 1. 19. 2. Cor. 3. 17. Heb. 9. 10.
For such laws which belong to the law of nature, and by which all nations are bound, are not abrogated.15
William Perkins (1558–1602) elaborates, and thus gives us necessary background for understanding what the Westminster divines intended when they wrote, “the general equity thereof.”
Judicials of common equity are such as are made according to the law or instinct of nature common to all men and these in respect of their substance bind the consciences not only of the Jews but also of the Gentiles for they were not given to the Jews as they were Jews, that is, a people received into the covenant above all other nations, brought from Egypt to the Land of Canaan, of whom the Messiah according to the flesh was to come; but they were given to them as they were mortal men subject to the order and laws of nature as other nations are. Again, judicial laws so far as they have in them the general or common equity of the law of nature are moral and therefore binding in conscience as the moral law.16
Finally, a passage from Johannes Wollebius (1589–1629) will help us:
I. As the ceremonial law was concerned with God, the political was concerned with the neighbor.
II. In those matters on which it is in harmony with the moral law and with ordinary justice, it is binding upon us.
III. In those matters which were peculiar to that law and were prescribed for the promised land or the situation of the Jewish state, it has not more force for us than the laws of foreign commonwealths.17
James Ussher, Samuel Rutherford, George Gillespie, Johannes Piscator, James Dickson, Herman Witsius, and Thomas Boston all took the same position: general equity is code for natural law. The Theonomists and Reconstructionists, however, have typically ignored the Reformed approach to natural law and general equity, and arbitrarily redefined general equity to mean whatever they say it means. This is very postmodern, but it is not accurate; nor is it the historic Reformed definition.
Thus, even their invocation of general equity is confused. That God is triune is not known from nature, but that murder is immoral is. How can the magistrate impose the Trinity on a people (per the first, second, and third commandments) since it cannot be known from nature? Yet, the Statement (at least in this article) asks the magistrate to impose the first table of the moral law.
- Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.
- Justin Martyr, First Apology, cap. 3.
- Ad Diognetum 5.1 in Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 541.
- Ad Diog. 5.2.
- Ad Dog. 5.4.
- Ad Diog. 5.7.
- Ad Diog. 5.5.
- Ad Diog. 5.12.
- Ad Diog. 5.9.
- Ad Diog. 5.10.
- Ad Diog. 5.17.
- Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and the Modernity in the Middle East (New York: Perennial, 2003), 96–97. Thanks to D. G. Hart for pointing us to this passage. See also D. G. Hart, A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006).
- Franciscus Junius, The Mosaic Polity, trans. Todd M. Rester, ed. Andrew M. McGinnis (Grand Rapids: CLP Academic 2015), 60.
- Robert Rollock, Lectures Upon The Passion, Resurrection, And Ascension Of Christ (Edinburgh: The Wodrow Society, 1616), 87–88.
- Amandus Polanus, Partitions of Divinity (London, 1590), 101–02.
- William Perkins, A Discourse on Cases of Conscience, in The Whole Works (London, 1631), 1.520.
- Johannes Wollebius, Compendium theologiae Christiane 14.6, in Reformed Dogmatics, trans. John W. Beardslee III (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 84.
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