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]
Here’s my response to a request for evidence in my claim regarding Calvin and the New Testament as the authority for our worship:
In his criticism of Roman worship, with all of its pomp and ceremony, Calvin writes in the Institutesas follows:
For they have partly taken their patterns from the ravings of the Gentiles, partly, like apes, have rashly imitated the ancient rites of the Mosaic law, which apply to us no more than do animal sacrifices and other like things.” (Institutes 4.10.12)
This is a striking sentence. When he accuses them of rashly imitating the ancient Mosaic Laws, he is not talking about the sacrificial system, which all Christians agree is abrogated. He is talking about the rites in addition to that system (“which apply to us no more than do animal sacrifices), including “other like things.” For Calvin, I it is quite clear, that included things like vestments, instruments, etc.
He goes on to say that these things serve “benumb the people rather than to teach them.” In their place Calvin emphasized preaching and the sacraments, because these are God’s divinely appointed means of teaching. Note that when Calvin discusses “ceremonies” or “constitutions” in this part of the Institutes he is referring essentially to liturgy and worship practices. Calvin does not want us to return to “ceremonies which, with Christ half buried, cause us to return to Jewish symbols.” (4.10.14)
He then points out that his Roman Catholic opponents are defending their practices based on the Old Testament model: “They say that among us are very many as untutored as there were among the people of Israel; that for the sake of these this sort of elementary discipline was provided …” Then he goes on, “It was not in vain that God set this difference between us and the ancient folk, that he willed to teach them as children by signs and figures, but to teach us more simply, without such outward trappings.”(4.10.14)
And later, commenting on John 4:23, “But the new worshipers differ from the old in that under Moses the spiritual worship of God was figured, and so to speak, enwrapped in many ceremonies; but now that these are abolished, he is worshiped more simply. Accordingly, he who confuses this difference is overturning an order instituted by Christ.” Read the whole section in the Institutes; this is just a selection of quotes to give you the thrust of argument. (4.10.14)
Evidence that I am interpreting Calvin right here, and that he extended this argument beyond just the Torah and to the whole system of Temple worship as found in the psalms and elsewhere, comes from the way he discusses instruments:
To sing the praises of God upon the harp and psaltery unquestionably formed a part of the training of the law and of the service of God under that dispensation of shadows and figures, but they are not now to be used in public thanksgiving. We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to him only in a known tongue (commentary on Psalm 71:22).
What would that approach do to the contemporary worship wars! But here’s more:
With respect to the tabret, harp, and psaltery, we have formerly observed, and will find it necessary afterwards to repeat the same remark, that the Levites, under the law, were justified in making use of instrumental music in the worship of God; it having been his will to train his people, while they were yet tender and like children, by such rudiments until the coming of Christ. But now, when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated the shadows of the law and taught us that God is to be served in a simpler form, it would be to act a foolish and mistaken part to imitate that which the prophet enjoined only upon those of his own time. (commentary on Psalm 81:3).
Notice here the contrast between the time of the law and the time of the coming of Christ. This clearly explains Calvin’s comments in the Instruments. The New Testament is the authority for worship. Finally, one more:
We are to remember that the worship of God was never understood to consist in such outward services, which were only necessary to help forward a people as yet weak and rude in knowledge in the spiritual worship of God. A difference is to be observed in this respect between his people under the Old and under the New Testament; for now that Christ has appeared, and the church has reached full age, it were only to bury the light of the gospel should we introduce the shadows of a departed dispensation. From this it appears that the Papists, as I shall have occasion to show elsewhere, in employing instrumental music cannot be said so much to imitate the practice of God’s ancient people as to ape it in a senseless and absurd manner, exhibiting a silly delight in that worship of the Old Testament which was figurative and terminated with the gospel (commentary on Psalm 92:1-4).
Here he is explicit: the New Testament alone is the authority for our worship.
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.
One of the reasons why it is worthwhile to pay attention to history is because we discover people who think in ways entirely counter-intuitive to us. It serves as a reminder that our assumptions are not obvious, and that our most basic claims need to be justified.
In the early years of the Reformation there was a debate about the relation between the Christian justified by faith and the law of the Old Testament. Christians offered different paradigms to make sense of that relationship, and Martin Luther himself said that while the Christian is not bound to the Mosaic Law, the Ten Commandments should nevertheless be preached in the churches and taught to children in order to teach people their guilt and lead them to Christ. This alarmed some who saw the preaching of the law as works-righteousness.
The Decalog belongs in the courthouse, not in the pulpit. All those who are occupied with Moses are bound to got o the devil. To the gallows with Moses!
It is hard to imagine a claim that grates more harshly on the typical assumptions of Americans (both Christian and otherwise) regarding the relationship between church, state, and the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments do not belong in the church!? They are fundamentally political?! In contrast to such claims, in our time it is (some of) the Evangelicals who want to keep the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, and (some of) the secular elites arguing that they should be kept out.
Agricola’s claim hardly represents the mainstream Reformation, of course. But it does point to the fact that many leading reformers viewed the Ten Commandments as integral to government and law (as they were, and have been, in the western tradition), and yet as needing careful theological qualification in the way in which they were preached in the churches. Christians were not viewed, strictly speaking, as being under the law, although it served to guide them in terms of how to obey God, given that all Scripture is profitable for correction and instruction (2 Timothy 3:16). On the other hand, one of the primary purposes of the law was to restrain those not led by the Gospel to act justly. This was the law’s civil use.
What would the Reformers think about American law and the American courts? Would they see the wisdom grounded in experience of separating church and state? I think the Reformers were wrong to assume that government should enforce all of the Ten Commandments (particularly the first four), although I do not think the Reformed tradition has always faced up to why, theologically, they were wrong. On the other hand, it seems to me that commandments 5-9 (protecting life, marriage, property, legal testimony, and the authority of parents over children) deserve greater recognition in our legal system. At the very least, it is worth remembering that whatever may be the flaws of John Agricola’s claim regarding the place of the law in the church, the Ten Commandments have been foundational to the western legal tradition. One need not confuse church and state to recognize this fact, and to fear the danger of abandoning them wholesale.