The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official stance of ChristianGovernance.
Prof. Van Dam calls his political theory “principled pluralism.” My thinking falls within the realms typically labeled theonomy and Christian Establishment. I was in agreement with a number of Prof. Van Dam’s comments at the broad principial level, and liked what he had to say in these respects. He stresses, for example, that there’s no such thing as neutrality – “There is no such thing as religious neutrality” (p. 23). He also notes that the battle in our day is religious in nature, not a conflict between religion and non-religion – “… Not only Christianity but also humanism is religious in nature” (p. 22). But when it comes to his application of these and other principles, there is wide divergence between Prof. Van Dam’s views and my own. There are other points of disagreement as well, and also areas of confusion over apparent contradictions in Prof. Van Dam’s presentation.
I will begin this review, noting numerous areas of agreement with Prof. Van Dam’s comments along with those already mentioned, then delve into some points of disagreement. Most of the points raised will be in the realm of the bigger issues at stake. This review will already be much too long, but it would go on for many more pages if we started to explore the particular areas of application along the lines of what constitutes the legitimate scope of the civil government and, therefore, by implication, the legitimate realms for personal liberty or self-government, parental government and church government. As it is, I’m breaking it into two parts, so this is Part 1.
I already made one comment on this book in an earlier ChristianGovernance eletter. You can review it by clicking here.
This review may be pretty tough reading for some. It is heavy theology and political theory in places. The theological categories discussed will mostly be in the context of Reformed theology, but the discussion includes very important references to beliefs and concepts that have been important to the church throughout history. We all need to broaden our understanding of Scripture and theological categories if we want to better engage on these issues in a crucial time in our country’s and world’s history. Those of you who might find this conversation rather foreign to your typical scope of reflection, I hope you will nevertheless be helped if you persevere through it. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me.
Areas of agreement and appreciation
One of the foundational principles Prof. Van Dam mentions for framing Biblical political theory (along with the lack of neutrality and the religious nature of the conflict) is the recognition of the sovereignty of God: “Central to any Christian understanding of law is the sovereignty of God” (p. 7). He presented four points of application of this principle from the Scriptures, which I also think are important to highlight in such a discussion.
Putting the discussion of political theory into its broader context, I concur with Prof. Van Dam’s point that “[n]o rule of law is possible without a law-abiding citizenry…” (p. 8).
He highlighted three areas of thought that he deems essential to understanding the contribution of Christianity to political theory and Western culture, three areas in which Humanism has attempted to offer its own competing ideas. These are democratic principles, law and freedom. I think this is a good framework for engaging in discussion of Christian political theory (Chapter 1). Perhaps pedantically, I don’t think the term democracy is helpful as a synonym for democratic principles. More about that below.
Prof. Van Dam provided a good discussion of freedom as an important value for Biblical political theory. I also appreciate the fact that he included some discussion on civil disobedience, including the convictions of men like John Calvin and John Knox (pp. 15-16). I’ve made reference to this before in an earlier ChristianGovernance eletter, and hope to excerpt this for you in the future.
I was also glad to learn from his book that some Reformed thinkers have been looking for alternative terms to “sphere sovereignty,” which is the common phraseology used for this leading political theory within Reformed circles. He indicated a preference for the language of “differentiated responsibility” or “differentiated authority” (p. 34). I think I prefer that as well. Only God is sovereign, so I have always felt uncomfortable with the term sphere sovereignty.
Christian Establishment vs. religious neutrality
Before exploring the application of his political theory, Prof. Van Dam addresses the Biblical principles that undergird such a discussion. He also provides a historical survey of highlights of Christian thought and practice in this area. He also raises and dismisses two other schools of thought, “Voluntarism and Pluralism” (pp. 57-59) and “Theonomy” (pp. 59-64). I very much appreciate the honest and accurate way he handles theonomy. Most people who criticize theonomy do not honestly represent the position. They also tend to be quite inaccurate, setting up straw men to shoot down. Prof. Van Dam’s presentation of theonomy was generally refreshing from someone who rejects that perspective.
Regarding his historical survey, it was very disappointing to see a Reformed scholar deal so briefly and inaccurately with Christian Establishment, which has been the dominant Christian position throughout history, and is a perspective I think includes theonomy within its orbit. Christian Establishment is the idea that the whole of society, including the civil magistrate, or state, recognizes and affirms Christianity as the religion of the society. The part of this concept that seems to scare most modern Christians is that it includes a government-recognized church. But this doctrine is almost unheard of in modern Christian discourse, including modern Reformed discourse, so we really don’t understand it. I have only recently been delving into it and trying to understand it, and I quickly learned that if I was going to be wedded to my modern – modernistic? – theological categories, I wasn’t going to understand Christian Establishment because it doesn’t fit. I think this is where Prof. Van Dam’s thinking falls down on this point. In referencing Christian Establishment, he wrote: “The idea of an established church is however to be rejected because it wrongly presupposes that in a Christian nation church and state are co-extensive” (p. 49). That is what most people today think, but that is not an accurate representation.
The fact of the matter is that whether or not I fully understand the concept of Christian Establishment, I am compelled to affirm the truth of it on the basis of the principle shared by myself and Prof. Van Dam that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS NEUTRALITY. The state is not neutral. The human beings who make up any given civil magistracy, passing laws and administering justice, do not operate in a moral vacuum or on the basis of moral neutrality. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS NEUTRALITY. A civil government will always betray a religious position, whether by DESIGN or by DEFAULT. A civil government will either practice Christian Establishment, or Hindu Establishment, or Humanist Establishment, or Islamic Establishment. Democratic nations as most of us have experienced will likely exhibit an inconsistent synthesis of more than one worldview, but that expression is NOT morally or theologically neutral, neither is it sustainable. NON-ESTABLISHMENTARIANISM is a non-existent category.
Operating from this premise that Establishment is a necessary reality, I can be fairly confident that God wants me as a Christian to advance Christian government and social order, not Islamic or Humanistic or Mormon, etc. I therefore am motivated to further understand what Biblical social order, including Biblical civil government, looks like. I think Christians have often applied the idea wrongly. I don’t blindly adopt all that has passed for Christian Establishment in human history. I go back to the Bible. I don’t reject the concept because some Christians have applied the idea in sinful ways. I would argue that as long as we have a divided denominational Church, we will never return to true Christian Establishment because if a church becomes officially recognized, those who are not part of that denomination will always see it as Anglican Establishment or Presbyterian Establishment or Pentecostal Establishment or Lutheran Establishment, etc., not as true Christian Establishment.
Some things that Prof. Van Dam says suggest that he too, in fact, believes in Christian Establishment. He rightly argues that “Government needs to create an environment where the Christian gospel can be freely preached.” This preferential treatment by the state for Christianity and the Church is basic to the idea of Christian Establishment. And it is a New Testament ideal, not an Old Testament concept. Paul tells Timothy to pray along these lines (1 Tim. 2:1-4). This kind of preferential treatment for Christianity is not a pluralistic concept. If Prof. Van Dam wants to hold to the fact that this is a legitimate function of the state, why does he want to try to fit it into a pluralistic model rather than accepting that it logically belongs in the frameworks of theonomy and Christian Establishmentarianism?
Prof. Van Dam elsewhere writes: “… one can argue that the first task of government is to establish justice and righteousness …” (p. 34). Faithful Presbyterians would say that the first task of the civil magistrate is the same as the first obligation on all men – to confess his allegiance to Christ. This is what the Christian Establishment position would argue. But, while Prof. Van Dam says here that the first task of government is to establish justice, only 2 pages later he writes: “Maintaining justice in the land starts with acknowledging the sovereignty of God since he sets the norms” (p. 37). OK then: is it not also logically necessary that the agents of justice – the civil magistrates – be the primary people to acknowledge the sovereignty of God? Should they not do it publicly instead of secretly in their homes? Acknowledgement hardly makes sense if it’s not a public act. This statement appears to contradict his earlier assertion, with this affirmation reflecting the spirit of Christian Establishment. Perhaps Prof. Van Dam would affirm Christian Establishment if he better understood the concept.
How sharp is the distinction between church and state?
Prof. Van Dam acknowledges that Reformed Christians such as Calvin argued for a more aggressive protection for the Church and affirmation of Christianity by civil magistrates (pp. 47-52) than is typical even among Reformed Christians today, but he argues that this view waned over time. He asserts without Biblical defense that this change reflected doctrinal progress and maturity rather than compromise (pp. 52-54). That may be Prof. Van Dam’s preferred interpretation of the historical record, but it’s predicated on the reliability of his prior convictions regarding the roles of the Church and the State rather than on clear and direct appeals to Scripture. “[N]ot all agreed that these reforms were justified,” he noted in wrapping up his historical survey.
In this respect, Prof. Van Dam seems to labour a great deal throughout the book to make the point that “the state does not have a duty to coerce or seek to change the religious convictions of its citizens. It is the task of the church to change human hearts by preaching the gospel and making disciples of all nations (Matt 28: 19-20)” (p. 57). He repeats this point many times throughout the book as though he expects a primary readership to be hostile humanists who don’t want Christianity “shoved down their throats” (i.e., legislated by the state). He wants to be very, very clear that the state has no business coercing the consciences of people, and this sensitivity seems to impact his view of the distinct spheres of authority of Church and State. I think that’s a big reason why he doesn’t feel comfortable with the idea of Christian Establishment, as he understands it. That comes out in the quote I provided above regarding the church and state not being “co-extensive.” But Christian Establishment doesn’t require imposition on people’s consciences. Modern Christians, I think heavily influenced by modern liberalism, confuse public expressions of faith with conscience, and so we treat imposition on people’s external “religious” behavior – going to church for example – as the equivalent of imposing on their consciences. Homosexual activists today carry that concept even further, arguing that legislating on the basis of the true definition of marriage is an illegitimate religious imposition on their conscience.
In fact, that way of thinking is wrong at the categorical level. In God’s integrated reality, religious exercises have social implications, for good or ill. This is why I disagree with Prof. Van Dam’s concepts on the state and legislation to protect the Lord’s Day. He argues correctly that God’s commands regarding the Sabbath Day are a creation ordinance, not simply a requirement distinctly imposed on God’s people, therefore the state has a legitimate role in protecting Sundays as a day of rest with legislation. But Prof. Van Dam says that civil magistrates should only use argumentation for such a move that is applicable to all men, such as the benefits or rest and family time. He writes (p. 165): “… the state should not go beyond its jurisdiction. Clearly the state cannot, for example, legislate a day of rest with the express purpose of compelling people to go to church.” Actually, that’s not clear at all. Non-Christians might steal from Christianity the idea that work is important, but the value of work is a Christian value. Should we oppose any compulsion by the civil government to work, and be prepared to set up a system of social welfare for 100% of the population if everybody decides to stop working? Why is church attendance different? Because we have let non-Christians set up false categories of distinction for us? A state that mandates, or strongly encourages, church attendance on Sundays is not impinging on a person’s conscience; it is placing demands on people’s external behavior, just as laws against stealing, murder and adultery do.
I certainly concur with Prof. Van Dam that there are different spheres of authority for church and state – and family – and that, where their activity overlaps, their responsibilities are typically distinct. But it is very important for us to try to ensure that the Bible defines the parameters of our categories. In at least one other place, I think that Prof. Van Dam overstates his case and, in so doing goes beyond Scripture. On pg. 31 he writes: “Indeed, government is the only part of society that can legitimately use armed force to enforce justice. Individuals have no such right or duty.” Stated in that fashion, this is a false statement. The Bible affirms the right of self-defense, even to the point of killing one’s opponent if such a move is proportionate (Exodus 22:2-3). We even have the right to make citizens’ arrests in Western common law tradition, which grew out of a largely Christian ethos. I believe that I have also gone beyond Scripture with some of the hard and fast distinctions I perceived between the spheres of authority between church, state and family governments. No doubt some of my categories still reflect this, as do some that Prof. Van Dam has proposed.
From whom does God demand obedience?
As noted earlier, Prof. Van Dam highlights three contributions of Christianity to Western culture and political theory – “democracy,” law and freedom. In his discussion of “democracy,” he made it clear that his focus was democratic principles. Democracy has become an accepted short-hand for democratic principles, but the two are not synonymous. Democracy is the name for a particular political theory – Government by the people for the people and of the people. I was helped some years ago by a Wesleyan professor of history and political science who said that a Biblical model of civil government should rather reflect the principles of government for the people, by the people, but OF GOD. He contended that the British form of constitutional monarchy and the American republic both fit that bill. Today more pedantic political theorists will still insist on distinguishing America as it was – a republic – from the perverted vision of democracy that has gained traction in recent decades. One, then, can make a good case that democratic principles can be implemented far more effectively in forms of government such as a republic or constitutional monarchy than in a true democracy.
On this subject, Prof. Van Dam writes: “While the democratic principles derived from the New Testament are applicable in the first place to the life of the church, those deriving from ancient Israel can have implications for society at large. After all, ancient Israel was not just the chosen people of God, but it also functioned politically and judicially as a nation among other nations. For this reason, principles such as the democratic involvement of the people in the political and judicial processes for the well-being of their nation have continuing relevance today” (p. 6).
With a comment like that, Prof. Van Dam is almost sounding like a theonomist. I think we would say there are no new democratic principles in the New Testament that you can’t already find in the Old Testament. I don’t know what Prof. Van Dam had in mind with that comment. It should, however, come as a shock to most Christians that the Bible reveals democratic principles governing Israel because that doesn’t line up with what we’ve all been taught about Israel being a theocracy. But that’s what the Bible teaches, as Prof. Van Dam notes. Because of this, then, Old Testament civil law is very applicable – and easy to apply – in our day. Prof. Van Dam is helping us undermine a significant argument leveled against theonomy by recognizing its democratic legacy or, as some would prefer, its republican legacy. (This is not a denial of the theocratic nature of Israel. It was both theocratic and republican. You can’t conceptualize this if your notion of theocracy remains wedded to conventional thinking which likens it to totalitarianism. We can consider this perhaps another time.)
Prof. Van Dam states elsewhere: “With respect to political liberty, an additional point, not related to the Exodus, is that each office or institution in Israelite society had its specific authority and clearly demarcated role. If an office or institution took on more power to itself than was called for, then tyranny and oppression resulted” (p. 13).
This is another comment which makes Prof. Van Dam sound like a theonomist. The failure by many Christians to get this right is one of theonomists’ biggest beefs with other political theories.
Perhaps the chief criticism non-theonomists have of theonomy is that the state of Israel merged the institutions of “Church” and State. (In that day perhaps they called it Synagogue and State or Temple and State.) That integration is what many Christians see as fundamental to the notion of theocracy as they use the term in reference to Israel. This model is something they see as inherent in the application of the moral law to Israel’s civic code. Because of this, one simply can’t apply the moral law in today’s nations, they say.
In fact, theonomists have provided some excellent Biblical scholarship to demonstrate how Israel kept the spheres of government – self, parent, “church” and civil – distinct. That scholarship is not exclusive to theonomy because Prof. Van Dam affirms the same point on the basis of his own research. This acknowledgment challenges the view that there is little if any abiding relevance of Israel’s example for civil application of God’s law.
One of Prof. Van Dam’s objections to theonomy is one of the common criticisms – that Israel was in a very unique relationship with God, therefore, the civic law that was stipulated for them is not something we are called to duplicate in all nations throughout history: “In the Old Testament, church and nation were in many respects the same, God, therefore, tailored the penalties for transgressions according to this reality” (p. 61). By “[i]n the Old Testament,” he means Old Testament Israel, not all nations which existed in Old Testament times because he immediately follows this statement with: “Since God lived in their midst, there was absolutely no room WITHIN HIS PEOPLE for such …” (emphasis added). Earlier, he wrote: “There are however great difficulties with th[e] approach [of the Scottish Confession of Faith (1560), the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Westminster Confession of Faith] for one cannot equate the special position of Israel’s theocratic kings with the rulers of our present age. This equation obliterates the vast differences between Israel’s identity as a special nation called by God to be his holy people in whose midst he lived and a modern nation that has no such relationship with God” (p. 55). But then, on page 74, Prof. Van Dam notes that God also expected heathen kings to comply with His law, and He punished them if they didn’t – and not just comply with His law, but actually acknowledge Him in His person. That’s “Christian Establishment” in practice. That’s an expression of obligation by the civil magistrate to comply with the first table of the law (the first four of the Ten Commandments). “Israel’s rulers were not the only ones who were accountable to God. Pagan ones were as well. For example, Daniel told King Nebuchadnezzar that God had put him in power (Dan 2:37-38) and so God warned the monarch through Daniel that unless he acknowledged God’s supreme place and repented of his sins in ruling, he would be driven from the throne to live with the wild animals (Dan 4:24-27).”
Nebuchadnezzar is not the only civil magistrate who the Bible records as being obliged to enforce God’s law. With comments like this, Prof. Van Dam is a great asset to theonomists, helping us educate our critics, and disabuse them of their key arguments against our social and political theory.
Before I move on, note again Prof. Van Dam’s statement from page 55 of his book: “… one cannot equate the special position of Israel’s theocratic kings with the rulers of our present age.” But, as also noted above, Prof. Van Dam also states that “ancient Israel was not just the chosen people of God, but it also functioned politically and judicially as a nation among other nations. For this reason, principles such as the democratic involvement of the people in the political and judicial processes for the well-being of their nation have continuing relevance today” (p. 6) and that “[w]ith respect to political liberty, … each office or institution in Israelite society had its specific authority and clearly demarcated role. If an office or institution took on more power to itself than was called for, then tyranny and oppression resulted” (p. 13). So which is it? Prof. Van Dam seems to be arguing against himself on this key foundational point of Biblical political theory. It’s not clear how he can offer up a truly principle-based political theory on such a foundation.
The state shouldn’t coerce your conscience
As noted previously, Prof. Van Dam labours to make the point that the state has no Biblically legitimate role to coerce people at the level of faith and conscience. He notes occasions in church history where he believes that Christians violated this principle. He uses this point on several occasions to argue in favour of principled pluralism. Often people dishonestly smear theonomy by claiming that it supports the idea of coercing people and violating their consciences. Prof. Van Dam does NOT do this, and I greatly appreciate that. He says, for example: “Theonomy does distinguish between social and political ethics. In other words, not all sins against God’s law are properly treated as crimes to be punished by the state. The coercive power of the state must only be used to enforce God’s criminal law” (p. 60). Thank you very much, Prof. Van Dam, for making that point, and staying separate from those critics of theonomy who have misrepresented it.
Even if one were to adopt the inaccurate merger of conscience issues with external behavior, I would contend that theonomy in fact imposes a Christian worldview on people far less than principled pluralism does. This is because theonomy argues for a much smaller role for this coercive institution (i.e., the state) than is demanded by principled pluralism. Prof. Van Dam says, for example: “Another valid criticism of theonomy is that it restricts the role of the government too much” (p. 63).
The view that the state has no business coercing people’s consciences is, then, at least as good an argument for considering theonomy as it is for adopting principled pluralism.
What do we do with the Ten Commandments?
I have indicated that there is lack of clarity as to what Prof. Van Dam is teaching in some places. His view of the application of the Ten Commandments is a case in point. Having some experience examining different Christian political theories, I would expect Prof. Van Dam to summarize his position with a statement such as: “In a general sort of way, one could say that government should stay out of legislating the first four commandments which deal with one’s relationship to God and concentrate on the last six dealing with one’s relationship to one’s neighbour.” That’s exactly what he wrote closer to the end of the book on p. 235. But I don’t know what he means by “in a general sort of way” because, as noted previously, he supports legislation to protect observance of a day of rest as per the Fourth Commandment. He has also said (p. 86) that “[t]he state cannot enforce, for example, the commandment not to covet.” This might be a small thing, but the summary statement on p. 235 does not add clarity to his message. Rather, it seems contradictory and out of place.
At the principial level, Prof. Van Dam seems as though he has at least one foot inside the theonomic camp. More clarity is required, though, in terms of some of the positions advanced in this book. He would also need to review much of the application he makes to political life. As noted above, Prof. Van Dam states: “With respect to political liberty, an additional point … is that each office or institution in Israelite society had its specific authority and clearly demarcated role. If an office or institution took on more power to itself than was called for, then tyranny and oppression resulted.” He also writes: “Another valid criticism of theonomy is that it restricts the role of the government too much.” And, “while we must be vigilant against government assuming too many responsibilities, we must also not expect too little from this servant of God for our good (Rom. 13:4). In many areas of life, a government is the only realistic body to assume certain responsibilities” (pp. 41-42). In fact, I don’t recall any area of life for which Prof. Van Dam calls for a complete elimination of the state’s participation. He is more interested in perhaps changing its role (e.g., not using health care influence to fund abortion or sex change operations), and reducing its role, such as encouraging people not to turn FIRST to the state for assistance. Principled pluralism, then, differs from status quo socialism in degree, not in kind; a “socialism lite,” perhaps – and, I would argue, not that lite! In view of Prof. Van Dam’s own comment about tyranny and oppression when an office or institution oversteps its demarcated role, theonomy’s reasonable – not rhetorical or polemical – analysis of principled pluralism is that it is a tyrannical political theory. How could we conclude otherwise? More examination of this point will be considered in Part 2 of this review.