Did we need the Enlightenment to see that government should not enforce true religion?

A few days ago the Aquila Report published my article on the place of the Torah in a Christian approach to politics. In that article I tried to show that early on the reformers followed the best in the Christian tradition not only by insisting that Christians are not bound to the political laws of the Torah, but by arguing that the sword should not be used to coerce pagans, heretics, or apostates. It was only later, I suggested, that they changed their views.

Following that article one reader suggested to me that the reformers were actually right to argue that government should enforce true religion, and that it is only the secular Enlightenment that has misled us into abandoning this clearly biblical view. In other words, the Presbyterians and the Reformed were wrong to change their confessions; governments must still “kiss the Son” by using the sword to punish those who teach false religion or conduct false worship.

Now there is something seriously wrong with viewing the Enlightenment as the one moment in which pagan human thinking distorted the witness of Christianity. It’s not as if the era of Christendom was a bastion of light and purity, with the Gospel shining unclouded for all to see. Was the imperial mindset of Constantine, built upon the reflections of pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, really any less of a distortion of true Christianity?

The reason why most thoughtful Christians today think government should not enforce the true religion is not because they have read John Locke. It is because they see that Jesus himself declared that his kingdom is not of this world, and that therefore it does not make use of the sword to defend itself or advance its interests. Governments submit to Christ by recognizing the limits on their authority and by allowing Christ to do the work of advancing his kingdom by his own means, the Word and Spirit. This view is not grounded in the Enlightenment. It is grounded in Jesus’ own teaching, as demonstrated by the faithful and careful exegesis of Scripture.

In fact, early on I believe Calvin saw this more clearly, and it was only due to the influence of the powers and exigencies of his day that he changed on this point. Note what he says about government in his 1540 commentary on Romans. After explaining Romans 13 without saying a single thing about any obligation of civil government towards the true religion, he comes to Paul’s quotation of the prophecy that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess the Lord. He then writes:

But though in this passage of the Prophet the Lord in general foreshadows that his glory should be known among all nations, and that his majesty should everywhere shine forth, which was then hid among very few, and as it were in an obscure corner of the world; yet if we examine it more closely, it will be evident that its complete fulfillment is not now taking place, nor has it ever taken place, nor is it to be hoped for in future ages. God does not now rule otherwise in the world than by his gospel; nor is his majesty otherwise rightly honored but when it is adored as known from his word… It hence appears, that this prophecy is indeed begun to be fulfilled in this life, but is far from being completed, and will not be so until the day of the last resurrection shall shine forth, when Christ’s enemies shall be laid prostrate, that they may become his footstool. (commentary on Romans 14:11)

Calvin was always very clear that Christ governs and advances his kingdom by the Word and Spirit alone. It will not always be that way, he realized, but the change will come when Christ returns to judge the world, not today. Now God rules by the gospel alone.

Before Jesus proclaimed the kingdom it was legitimate for Israel to typify God’s eschatological judgment by punishing religious crimes with death, but Jesus made it eminently clear that his first coming was as a suffering servant for the salvation of the world, not for its destruction. Jesus therefore repeatedly spurned the eagerness of his disciples to call forth God’s judgment or to take up the sword. Why, if he was the king with all authority on heaven and on earth? It was not because he did not have the authority. It was because today is the day of salvation. The time will come when Christ will judge the world, but thankfully for so many who do not yet know Christ, that time is not today.

[Note: this post has been updated since the original version]

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 9, 2012, in Two Kingdoms and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Did we need the Enlightenment to see that government should not enforce true religion?.

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