Sub-Christian Nationalism? (Part 14)

Continuing on article XIV:

More important, however, than the Statement’s confusion about general equity is what the authors want to do with it, and what assumptions they bring when applying the moral law to civil life in 2023.

The Statement says the general equity of the moral law “reflects to citizens both the perfect righteousness of God and our own sinfulness and shortcomings.” This is true, but no orthodox Christian denies this. What is in question is whether God has ordained, after the Jewish national covenant expired at the death of Christ, that the magistrate should institute the Christian religion and enforce the first table of the moral law. As I have been objecting throughout this series, where did the Apostles seek to do this? They certainly affirmed the abiding validity of the moral law. They quoted the first table regularly. God’s holy moral law is basic to Christian ethics and to apostolic moral instruction. But where is the biblical warrant, in the New Testament or in the Old Testament as understood in and by the New, for the magistrate imposing and enforcing it? The silence of the New Testament and the early Christian church on this point is deafening.

The Statement says correctly that God’s moral law (e.g., the Ten Commandments) “secures civil order by restraining evil through protecting the righteous from the wicked.” This is true enough, but surely this is a matter of the second table, is it not? Further, it is no business of the civil magistrate what a citizen thinks, which removes the tenth commandment (coveting) from the magistrate’s purview as well.
By nature, the magistrate does have an interest (i.e., a stake) in the fifth commandment (respect for authorities), the sixth commandment (preservation of life), the seventh commandment (the preservation of the family), the eighth commandment (theft), and the ninth commandment (truth-telling). There is even a reasonable argument that the magistrate has an interest in the fourth commandment insofar as the necessity of a day of rest can be known from nature.

The Statement says the moral law guides Christians, which is true (Reformation Christians describe this as the third use of the law), but it then elaborates on this basic Christian principle by claiming the law should guide Christians in “the good works that God has planned for them,” and is thus “an essential aspect of keeping the Great Commission in teaching all nations to obey everything Christ has commanded.” Here, as earlier in the Statement, the framers have adopted an untenable interpretation of Matthew 28:18–20, which has already been demonstrated. Orthodox Christians agree that God is the Creator, that he gives common grace to the world to restrain evil, and that he gives saving grace to his elect. The Statement does not make this distinction and seems to speak here only of saving grace.

It is interesting that the Statement affirms “God is the Savior of many, calling them through the gospel.” Interesting, I say, because in its earlier version, the Statement rather pointedly did not privilege the Reformation understanding of what the gospel is or what salvation is. It said,

WE AFFIRM the orthodox Christian faith as defined by the historic “creeds” (e.g., Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed), which the Christian church throughout church history has universally affirmed.

WE DENY that orthodoxy is defined by any particular “confessions.”

In its current version, however, the Statement now says,

WE AFFIRM that nations are commanded to honor God by officially affirming the orthodox Christian faith as historically and universally defined and affirmed in the creeds (e.g., Apostle’s Creed [sic], Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed). We affirm that many denominational confessions articulate the orthodox Christian faith. We affirm that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, revealed in Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.

WE DENY that a Christian nation must require or preclude membership in any particular confessional tradition or denomination.

This is a positive revision, but the framers of the Statement may want to attribute the Apostles’ Creed to all of them, as it were, rather than merely to one (Apostle’s).

Whereas the original public version seemed intentionally inclusive of Roman Catholicism, this version seems intentionally exclusive of Roman Catholicism. If the putative new national religion affirms salvation sola gratia, sola fide, what is the status of Roman Catholics or other groups (e.g., Mormons, etc.) who deny salvation sola gratia, sola fide? Right about now, readers of sufficient age (or sense of humor) might be thinking, as I am, of John Cleese trying to achieve an equitable distribution of lupins. Just as Dennis Moore had trouble with socialism, it seems the framers are having trouble with exactly which sort of Christianity they hope to impose under Christian Nationalism.

Article XIV affirms that “not many will be saved by works done under the law,” that the law is a tutor (to lead to Christ), and that just laws reflect God’s character. So far, amen.

The next sentence, however, may perhaps be among the more problematic in the entire Statement:

And in this way alone, just Christian governments serve the church in its mission of evangelism.

It is strange that the Apostles needed no help from any “Christian government” in their mission of evangelism. The Apostles preached wherever they had opportunity, with no aid from the government at all. Indeed, they fulfilled their mission, not as representatives of the Roman empire, but as representatives of the kingdom of heaven and the ascended King Jesus (John 18:36; Phil 3:20).

Meditation on Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 would be most valuable here. In both places, the authors regard the magistrate as the minister (Paul’s word) of secular, natural, and judicial law, and nothing more. His job is to reward civil righteousness and to punish civil evil. Full stop. In this clause, the Statement has confused the missions of the church and the state. The latter has a legal mission; the former has a gospel mission. The church has a sacred mission; the state has a purely secular mission.

The basis for their confusion is their claim that “civil authorities possess a moral and spiritual foundation and orient citizens toward truth and morality, whether good or evil.” The Statement has two churches and two masters. The New Testament and the early post-apostolic church know nothing of the Statement’s confusion of nature and grace.

Nero had moral authority insofar as he was God’s minister to pursue natural, secular, and civil justice. Paul understood (Rom 2:14) that Nero, an evil reprobate who was Caesar when Paul wrote Romans, knew enough about natural justice to be able to execute it without instruction from special revelation. What was Nero’s “spiritual foundation”? One shudders to think. What was Constantine’s “spiritual foundation” for that matter? Historians do not know whether he was ever actually a Christian. It is hotly debated, and there is not enough evidence to know with certainty. Indeed, that is true for many magistrates, including those who claimed to be Christians after Constantine.

In fact, this entire construct is a theocratic fever dream. If we distinguish nature and grace, as we must, then there is no need whatsoever to postulate a “spiritual foundation” for the civil government. Does it matter when civil authorities authorize licentiousness? It does indeed. The response, however, is not to confuse nature and grace (the secular and the sacred), but to persuade voters and the magistrate (e.g., legislatures) to stick to their business. The chaos enveloping cities across the USA is prima facie evidence of what happens when magistrates stop punishing evil doers (e.g., murderers and thieves). We can see this from nature. We do not need special revelation to determine this.

Finally, Reformed Christians agree with the Statement’s rebuke of Dispensational antinomianism, which relegates the Ten Commandments “solely for Old Covenant Israel.” We affirm as well that they “represent the enduring righteousness of God that is to be loved and obeyed for the good of man and the glory of God.” What is far less clear, however, is that the Statement has made its case for the theocratic enforcement of the first table of the Ten Commandments and for the magistrate as a spiritual and evangelical institution.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

You can find this whole series here.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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4 comments

  1. Well said.
    The Reformation itself was, in part, a reaction against the corruption that stemmed from the church’s entanglement with political power. The church’s independence from the state can be seen as a safeguard against such corruption. I’m currently formulating an argument that the purest form of the Establishment Principle in Western Christendom was the Solem League and Covenant (1638-1649), including its dominions, and that any attempt to formalize as a covenanted nation in the US would require denominational repentance as well as a return to the SL&C. Short of that, the EP in the USA is a red herring, pretending history didn’t happen and theology doesn’t have consequences.

  2. Regarding this: “Whereas the original public version seemed intentionally inclusive of Roman Catholicism, this version seems intentionally exclusive of Roman Catholicism.”

    The last example in the Western world of a widespread national return to a Christian consensus of governmental principles was under Abraham Kuyper. We can debate the details of what Kuyper did or did not do, but it is beyond serious question that Kuyper succeeded by breaking the unholy alliance between conservative Roman Catholics and liberals in the Netherlands, convincing conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics that they had enough in common to work together against the secular and liberal forces which began with the French Revolution to destroy much of the older Christian civil consensus of the various national states of Europe. Let’s not minimize how radical that was in the context of the Netherlands, a state formed specifically to be Protestant while what came to be Belgium was the home of Catholics — not unlike the modern divisions of East and West Germany, North and South Korea, and North and South Vietnam with a single people sharing a single language and culture being divided by ideology. Kuyper faced stiff opposition from some Dutch conservatives who understood how radical it was to cooperate with Roman Catholics, with GH Kersten of the Gereformeerde Gemeenten (the equivalent North American denomination is the Netherlands Reformed Congregations) being his key opponent.

    Kuyper’s vision was foundational to the later projects of Francis Schaeffer and D. James Kennedy which provided the theological justification for conservative Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants to cooperate in the pro-life movement and other endeavors.

    If these “Christian Nationalists” want to say Kuyper, Schaeffer and Kennedy were all wrong, that is their right. Cromwell and Knox would agree.

    But it seems patently obvious that any “Christian Nationalism” project that seeks to distance itself, in the context of 21st Century America, not only from Kuyper, Schaeffer and Kennedy but also Rev. Witherspoon and others among the Founding Fathers who recognized the necessity of cooperation with Roman Catholics in Maryland to win the American Revolution way back in the 1770s, is a fantasy, not a reality.

  3. Hi Dr Clark,
    In the third paragraph you state, “This is true enough, but surely this is a matter of the second table, is it not?” And later on, “There is even a reasonable argument that the magistrate has an interest in the fourth commandment insofar as the necessity of a day of rest can be known from nature.” It seems the point you are making is that the magistrate doesn’t have an interest in the keeping of the first table of the law, insofar as it should not punish breakers of the first table or reward keepers of the first table.
    I’m having a hard time understanding how that fits with Paul’s description of man (apart from the grace of God) in Romans 1:18-23 and then what happens to the unregenerate man (and what he actively does) in verses 24-32.
    Based on this passage, it is clear that man, even without special revelation, is aware of the Godhead (20-21). This would fulfill your criteria of “can be known from nature”, so it seems at least the first commandment should be included in your list.
    Regarding the magistrate having an interest in first table keeping, verses 24-32 provide compelling second table implications for the magistrate to at least encourage the keeping of the first commandment. How it does that is debatable, but to say that it shouldn’t do that seems to deny the clear connection Paul is making in this passage.
    I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts on this passage in relation to the first commandment and the Godhead being known through nature. Also, where you would disagree with my conclusions.
    Thank you for your time and always enjoy your Presbycast appearances,
    Christian

    • Christian,

      It’s one thing to recognize what the 1st table requires and another to conclude that the magistrate has an interest in enforcing the first table. In Romans 1:18–3:20 Paul is preaching the law but he nowhere does he connect the pedagogical use of the law to the civil magistrate by which the Spirit convicts his elect of the greatness of their sin and misery and their need for the Savior.

      What has to be shown (and what I doubt can be shown from the New Testament or the OT understood as the NT does) is that the Apostles taught or implied that the magistrate should be enforcing the 1st table.

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