Part II – Toward an Evangelical Methodology
Chapter 7 – Theological Foundations for an Evangelical Political Philosophy.
By Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology and fellow Berkeley College at Yale University.
Wolterstorff begins his essay with a brief look at biblical passages he deems critical to building a philosophy. The headings are the those of the author.
Paul’s Advice to the Roman Christians Concerning the State
It was not obvious to the early Christians what stance they should take toward the institutions of Hellenistic society. The radical quality of Jesus’ teaching, combined with the fact that he apparently never addressed the issue with full generality, made it problematic for them how they should relate to extant domestic, economic, and political institutions. (141)
Wolterstorff says something profound here. God has not left us with a set of instructions for a "build it yourself" world. God has given us a narrative account of what he has been doing in the world, he gives us a glimpse of future realities, and he gives us his presence. The very way God has chosen to reveal himself says that God intends for us to be participants with him in the unfolding process he is working in history. Otherwise, we would have been given a manual to implement. Wolterstorff comes back to the implications of this later in the essay but I don’t think his observation here can be stressed enough.
Wolterstorff turns to two New Testament passages that he believes are central. First is the Haustafeln, or “house tables, in 1 Peter 2:13-3:7. These tables give advice on how to conduct household affairs. From this 1 Peter passage he concludes,
With the exception, of course, of religious institutions, they [Christians] are to participate side by side with non-Christians in the institutions of their society: marriage, family, economy, and polity. (142)
The second passage he cites is Romans 12:19-13:7. Believing these two passages to be talking about the same thing he refers back to 1 Peter observing that God established government “to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” This is its purpose. Furthermore, “Government must not be thought of as some purely human artifact, nor must I be thought of as a work of the devil." (143)
The Old Testament Background to Paul’s Advice
Wolterstorff turns to Old Testament roots for Paul’s view of government. He introduces the ideas of corrective justice and primary justice. Corrective justice seeks to undo or compensate for wrongs that have been committed. Primary justice is the basic requirements that we expect everyone to live by.
Continuing with an analysis of other passages, particularly in the first two chapters of Amos, Wolterstorff draws two conclusions: The nations surrounding Israel, even without the Torah knew what God’s justice required and “…God’s rendering of judgment is in good measure mediated by human beings and human institutions.” (147)
Government as Part of the Creation Order
Taking the whole of scripture, Wolterstorff concludes,
There would have been government even had there been no sin. Government represents a blend of God’s providential care of his creation as created, and of God’s providential care of his creation as fallen. (150) (Wolterstorff's emphasis)
Referring back to Calvin’s analysis, he affirms that “…the task of government is to serve the common good – the shalom, the flourishing, of the people.” (150)
The Two Rules
The Christian lives under two rules: as a citizen, under the rule of some state; and as a member of the church, under the rule of Christ. (150-151)
Christ is the head of both state and the church, so we are actually serving Christ in both contexts. The struggle comes in that humanity is fallen and, therefore, so is the state. This is the challenge for the Christian.
Wolterstorff turns his attention to the alternative Anabaptist teaching of John Howard Yoder. Written more than thirty years ago, Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus” still has significant influence in many circles. Yoder writes about the “powers.”
The powers, Yoder says, are the intellectual, ethical, religious, political, and social structures that give order and stability to human existence. Though supra-individual, we need not think of them in personal or angelic terms. (153)
Wolterstorff characterizes Yoder’s position as believing the state is evil but necessary for human existence in the present era. Describing Yoder’s position he writes,
We are not to obey the state because it issues legitimate commands that place us under obligation; we are simply to subject ourselves to it, in the way the Russians subjected themselves to Stalin. (154)
Wolterstorff is critical of Yoder’s position as am I. He cites Paul’s argument in Romans that the rulers “are not a terror to good conduct but to bad.” He is critical of the idea that government is intrinsically evil.
An analogue would be the view that the fall of humankind consisted not in human beings acting wrongly under the influence of powers, but themselves becoming intrinsically evil powers. (155) (Wolterstorff's emphasis)
I agree with Wolterstorff but I would add an additional critique. I think Yoder’s conceptualization views “culture” and its institutions as static objects disassociated from individual participants. The dynamic actions of individuals form cultures and institutions even as those cultures and institutions in turn form individuals. It is an organic reality that can not be so easily divided.
The Application to Us
Wolterstorff began by observing that we have been giving no instruction manual for how to relate to cultural institutions. Over the centuries since the formation of the Church we have been struggling with these issues. Given the fact that we are not merely subjects of the state in our democratic societies, he believes that Paul would affirm,
“…that it is your and my calling as citizens rather than mere subjects to encourage the state to live up to its task of promoting justice and serving the general welfare.” (156)
The author then lists positive contributions to government that have come from Christian roots. (157-159)
- "…the idea of government as the rule of law… The idea of law as opposed to sovereign will is omnipresent in the Old Testament."
- The rise of constitutionalism and “...its sharp differentiation of persons from offices..” they may hold.
- The balance of power by a division of powers into legislative, judicial, and executive powers in anticipation of human sinfulness and the tendency to abuse power.
- The value of the individual as created in the image of God.
- “…natural human rights as protection against tyrannical government.”
- “ the requirement that the state not absorb into itself the manifold institutions of civil society” and thus become totalitarian.
Wolterstorff turns from these observations to note topics that also should be considered but were not within the parameters of his essay. He concludes citing thirteen theses that should be part of an evangelical political philosophy.
Basic Theses (160-161)
- Government is not a merely human creation, nor is it a work of the devil. Government is instituted by God as part of God’s providential care for his creatures.
- The task assigned by God to government is twofold: to promote justice, both primary and corrective, and in its coordinating activities to enhance the common good.
- Government, thus understood, belongs both to God’s providential care for us as creatures and to God’s providential care for us as fallen.
- When government acts as it ought to act, it acts with genuine authority. That authority is to be understood as not merely human but a mediating Christ’s authority.
- The corollary of the exercise by government of genuine authority is that it subjects are obligated to obey that authority.
- Among the things that governments are authorized to do is apply retributive punishment to wrongdoers – provided that the punishment is itself of a just sort.
- Though government, along with such other institutions as marriage, family, and economy, is instituted by God as part of his providential care for human beings as creatures and as fallen, government, along with these other institutions, is itself fallen. That is to say, government and other social institutions never fully carry out the tasks assigned them by God.
- Though not every failing on the part of government – or any other social institution – justifies disobedience, all too often governments do fail to such a degree that disobedience is required. The starkest examples of such obligatory disobedience are those cases in which the government demands that something other than God be worshiped.
- The Christian may serve in the offices of government; in doing so, he is mediating the rule over the state of that very same Christ who is ruler of the church.
- When the Christian occupies some governmental office, he or she must not be guided by customary practice but by the God-assigned task of government: to promote justice and the common good.
- It is the duty of the Christian always to call his or her government to its proper task. Especially is this true for those of us who have some degree of voice in out governments.
- Such calling of government to its proper task will ordinarily include proclamation. But whenever possible, it will also include the promotion of governmental structures that make it less likely that the government will fail in, or violate, its task.
- Christians will honor and respect government; they will not talk or act as if government has no right to exist. And they will support government by paying taxes. They will not talk and as if government, in assessing taxes, is forcefully taking from its subjects “their money.” Financial support is owed the government.