The Law, Israel, and Politics: Coming to Grips with a Reformed Error

[Note: This article originally appeared on this blog on May 1, 2012.]

In a recent post on his excellent blog, Walter Russel Mead compares the political right in Israel with the political right in America:

Like social conservatives and libertarians in the US, only in a much more polarized way, the right wing of the Israeli electorate includes very religious and very secular voters. The Christian right in the US is mostly focused on a small number of high profile issues like abortion. In Israel, the religious right has a much fuller and more encompassing view on how religion should shape the political agenda. Jewish law in all its complexity, many feel, should be the guiding principle in a Jewish state.  The resulting issues go from how strictly should state entities observe the Sabbath to whether ultra-Orthodox students should be able to defer their military service indefinitely.

In part due to its high birth rate, the ultra-orthodox movement is increasingly asserting itself in Israeli politics. And consistent with their allegiance to the old Mosaic Covenant, they want Israel to be run according to the Torah, the Mosaic Law. As the International Crisis Group quotes one ultra-orthodox student:

There’s a new ultra-orthodox generation that wasn’t born in the diaspora but in the land of Israel. It’s the world of those whose roots belong here and who don’t want to abandon the land. They see the crisis afflicting Israel and want to get involved in mainstream politics for the good of the whole society, not just their interest group. They want to see judges wear skullcaps and act according to Torah law.

Classically, of course, Christians rejected the use of the Torah as a definitive authority for the government of Christian lands. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to claim in his Summa Theologiae that if someone follows the Torah’s political and judicial laws simply because those laws are found in the Torah, that person commits a mortal sin (I-II, Q. 104, Art. 3). Christians were to obey the Torah only insofar as it reflected natural law.

Martin Luther, likewise, argued that Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, and that they should follow its political laws only where those laws can be demonstrated to be expressions of natural law. On this basis he initially opposed the use of the sword for the coercion of false teachers or blasphemers. Unfortunately, he later changed his position.

Even John Calvin took a similar position. As he wrote in his first edition of the Institutes, against those who “deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and [which] is ruled by the common laws of nations,” the judicial laws of the Torah are only binding insofar as they are expressions of the timeless demands of natural law, love, and equity:

For the statement of some, that the law of God given through Moses is dishonored when it is abrogated and new laws preferred to it, is utterly vain… For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere (4.20.14-16).

In fact, it is little known that in the first edition of theInstitutesCalvin criticized the use of the sword for religious persecution. Speaking of the love with which Christians should seek to reconcile those who are excommunicated, as well as “Turks and Saracens, and other enemies of religion,” he wrote:

Far be it from us to approve those methods by which many until now have tried to force them to our faith, when they forbid them the use of fire and water and the common elements, when they deny them all offices of humanity, when they pursue them with sword and arms (1536 Institutes, 2.28).

This is promising stuff. Unfortunately, Calvin dropped that quote from subsequent editions of the Institutes (except, fascinatingly, the final French edition). In practice, he defended government’s use of the sword to punish violators of all of the Ten Commandments, especially in his commentaries and sermons on the Torah. Both Lutheranism and Calvinism became known for their turning to the example of Old Testament Israel as a model for Christian commonwealths. Like the Israelite kings, godly magistrates were to enforce all of God’s laws, including those laws regulating preaching and worship.

It’s not that they didn’t know opposing arguments. In addition to their early positions, as described above, Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers were consistently confronted with arguments from Anabaptists, Evangelical pastors, prominent civil officials, and various intellectuals, to the effect that Christians are not under Israel’s Torah, and that therefore the example of Old Testament Israel did not justify the use of the sword for religious persecution. As one civil official in the city of Nurnberg put it:

Now it is certainly true that the Old Testament no longer binds any man, and if we are bound in one matter on the ground that it is commanded in the Old Testament, how shall we avoid being bound in other such matters? If one thing were necessary, they would all be necessary, as Paul clearly concludes in Gal. 5[:3] and says against those who wanted to make circumcision obligatory: Whoever has himself circumcised is obliged to fulfill the whole law. Therefore we must not be bound by anything in the Old Testament but rather give heed to the New Testament.

Our views of the Mosaic Covenant, of the Torah, and of their relation to politics in the present age are tremendously important. Christians still debate this stuff vigorously today, although the “dominionists” and “theonomists” make up only a small minority within Evangelicalism. Is God’s purpose for modern day America (or for modern day Israel, for that matter), for us to be an imitation of Old Testament Israel, under that Law that Christians – according to Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin in their better moments – have been freed from?

Thankfully in time the Reformed tradition came to see the mistake in insisting that civil magistrates are to enforce the true religion, and both the Westminster Confession of Faith (the Presbyterian confession) and the Belgic Confession of Faith (the Dutch Reformed confession) were modified to eliminate that requirement. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that in part this was simply a shift of convenience. When separation of church and state and religious liberty is so popular all around us, it is hard to keep such an intolerant confession. Have we ever really come to grips with the crucial theological and covenantal issues that led our tradition down the wrong path in the past? Do we still think that in some ideal sense we are “under the Torah”? There still needs to be so much discussion on this topic.


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 23, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Law, Israel, and Politics: Coming to Grips with a Reformed Error.

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