I examine biblical data on the origin and purpose of government and contrast it with the traditional right and left wing outlooks as classically formulated by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine and carried on to this day, arguing that there is some validity in both approaches, but that the biblical worldview differs in some significant respects. I ultimately seize on the idea that Christians should prefer to live in something more akin to a libertarian society.
The histories of the Christian left and right are also briefly discussed.
I recently came across a small treatise by the 16th century Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus–the same Erasmus who gave us the Textus Receptus (the New Testament in its Greek printed edition) and The Praise of Folly. The treatise is entitled Against War and I found in it a parallel to the attitude of much of western Christiantiy today. Erasmus speaks of those Christians who desired to blot out the Turks to stop the advancement of Islam upon Christian territories and proposes a different solution to the “problem of the Turk” which he found to be more Christlike:
“Nor to me truly it seemeth not so allowable, that we should so oft make war upon the Turks. Doubtless it were not well with the Christian religion, if the only safeguard thereof should depend on such succours. Nor it is not likely, that they should be good Christians, that by these means are brought thereto at the first. For that thing that is got by war, is again in another time lost by war. Will ye bring the Turks to the faith of Christ? Let us not make a show of our gay riches, nor of our great number of soldiers, nor of our great strength. Let them see in us none of these solemn titles, but the assured tokens of Christian men: a pure, innocent life; a fervent desire to do well, yea, to our very enemies; the despising of money, the neglecting of glory, a poor simple life. Let them hear the heavenly doctrine agreeable to such a manner of life. These are the best armours to subdue the Turks to Christ. . .
“Trow ye it is a good Christian man’s deed to slay a Turk? For be the Turks never so wicked, yet they are men, for whose salvation Christ suffered death. And killing Turks we offer to the devil most pleasant sacrifice, and with that one deed we please our enemy, the devil, twice: first because a man is slain, and again, because a Christian man slew him.”
-Desiderius Eramus, Against War
I was recently interviewed on the Ordinary Folk podcast. We talked about theology, politics, the relationship between church and state, and superheroes. Click the image or link below to listen:
There seem to be two basic attitudes in the church in regard to the question of how Christians should vote. The first is that politics is a complicated issue and that each Christian should lean purely on his or her conscience to reach a conclusion. The other is that there is one particular party that strongly represents the Christian viewpoint and it belongs to whoever is speaking at the time.
I think that we can take a more thoughtful perspective. There are certain biblical principles that tell Christians which kind of state they should prefer and which issues are central to its proper functioning. And in a country like the United States where citizens can participate in guiding the direction of government, these principles might also inform us on how we should vote.
To begin with, we ought to distinguish ancient Israel from those physical nations which have not been chosen by God to issue laws based on theocratic principles. Though the laws of Israel might at times inform us as to how secular states should work, Jesus’ claim in John 18:36 that the Kingdom of God must be distinguished from geopolitical powers ought to give us pause when it comes to direct application of the laws of theocratic Israel to our present nation’s laws. However, the following principles seem to be applied to all nations universally when the Bible speaks about the role of the state:
1. The state should punish evildoers and reward those who do good.
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:3-4).
This passage raises a lot of questions about the relationship between church and state, following as it does after a passage wherein Paul tells Christians that they should not seek to punish the wicked but allow God to avenge either now (perhaps through the state) or in the age to come. Whether or not we assume that it forbids Christians from participation in the state, we must at least conclude that it tells us that a state which functions most properly will punish not those who do good, but those who are doing evil. Indeed, those who do good should have nothing to fear in a state which is living up to its purpose.
2. The state should allow for freedom on matters of conscience.
“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Paul here encourages Christians living in a pagan state which did not allow open participation in directing its political aims to pray that those in power would allow for Christians to have the freedom to follow their Christians convictions. He follows this up by noting that Christianity can flourish in a state which allows for religious freedom to either accept or reject its doctrines and practices. Christians should therefore desire religious freedom for both Christians as well as non-Christians.
3. The state should be concerned that peace is pursued and justice is done, particularly for the poor and oppressed.
“For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity, and his anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever” (Amos 1:11).
In Amos we see the moral standards that God holds pagan nations–those who do not follow Him and perhaps have not even heard of Him–to. We find that God will execute judgment on nations that preferring war and taking advantage of the weak and poor as a means to become prosperous. This tells us that even a secular nation should prefer peace and justice for the oppressed and seek it out whenever possible.
How shall we then vote?
With these principles in mind, what should we expect the biblically minded Christian to do on election day? As many Christians find themselves unable to comfortably support either Trump or Clinton, we find ourselves in a trilemma: do we vote for the lesser of two evils, abstain from voting, or seek out a third party which more closely reflects the core Christians values as to the role of the state? If we choose the lesser of two evils, we have acted in support of evil. If we vote third party or abstain, we may be enabling the candidate which we fear could do the most evil to win the popular vote and perhaps the election itself.
For the Christian, obedience to God and to doing right should be our chief concern. The rest is up to God. However, there is still room for Christian conscience–do you believe that any one candidate is close enough to these core values to earn your support? Alternatively, do you feel that none of them do, or perhaps that the act of a Christian voting in and of itself conflicts with citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Then you must act on whichever conclusion–biblically and politically informed–that you reach.
Though Protestants have in more recent years come around to the principle of separation of church and state, this was not so in the beginning. While petitioning for the freedom to challenge the church and follow scripture as their consciences dictated, they simultaneously believed that it was the duty of the state to inflict punishment upon those they saw as heretics. John Calvin supported the execution of the unitarian Michael Servetus, Ulrich Zwingli saw to it that Balthasar Hubmaier was tortured for his view of believer’s baptism, and Martin Luther will forever be connected to his advocacy of religiously motivated state violence towards Jews and those who took part in the Peasants’ Revolt. In this milieu it was the so-called “radical reformers”–the Anabaptists—alone who, after taking a close look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, made this idea central to their Christian belief and practice; and it was Michael Sattler who helped to codify this belief into an Anabaptist confession of faith.
John Howard Yoder gives the basic outline of Michael Sattler’s life up to this pivotal event:
“Michael Sattler was born sometime around 1490 at Staufen in the Breisgau. He entered the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter’s, northeast of Freiburg, where he became — or was likely to become — prior. In the 1520s he came , by way of Lutheran and Zwinglian ideas, to forsake the monastery and to marry, and by March, 1525, had become a member of the Anabaptist movement which had just begun at Zürich two months before” (Yoder).
This summary accounts for all that is known of Sattler’s life save for the last two years in which he bursts onto the scene of history (though Snyder, one of Sattler’s biographers, views even this basic outline to be rather conjectural at a number of points). It was in these last two years that Sattler became “the most significant of the first-generation leaders of Anabaptism” (Yoder).
This significance is due in large part to his central role in framing the Schleitheim Articles, the aforementioned Anabaptist confession of faith which would cost him his life and underline the importance of the doctrine which he viewed as central to the Christian faith. The articles, which included confessions on Anabaptist principles such as believer’s baptism and oaths, also spoke very clearly on the distinct roles of church and state, noting that Jesus and the Apostles seemed to forbid those tools of violence which magistrates viewed as essential to executing their duties:
“the rule of the government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the Spirit. Their houses and dwelling remain in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. Their citizenship is in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. The weapons of their battle and warfare are carnal and only against the flesh, but the weapons of Christians are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldly are armed with steel and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God” (Schleitheim).
Shortly after the confession was unanimously endorsed by a meeting of Swiss Anabaptists, Sattler, along with his wife Margaretha and other Anabaptists, was arrested for his alleged heresy. Snyder summarizes his fate briskly:
“The trial lasted two days, at the end of which Michael Sattler and his codefendants were found guilty. Sattler was sentenced to have his tongue cut off, to have his body torn seven times with glowing tongs, and finally to be burned to death. This verdict was carried out on May 20, 1527” (Snyder).
The Martyrs Mirror, a 17th century collection of the stories of martyrs (particularly Anabaptists), gives a more dramatic account. It begins with Sattler answering the charges against him with boldness. After being accused of taking the side of the enemies of the faith by not being willing to take up arms against the Turks, Sattler responded:
“If the Turks should come, we ought not to resist them; for it is written: Thou shalt not kill. We must not defend ourselves against the Turks and others of our persecutors, but are to beseech God with earnest prayer to repel and resist them. But that I said, that if warring were right, I would rather take the field against the so-called Christians, who persecute, apprehend and kill pious Christians, than against the Turks,was for this reason: The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith; and is a Turk after the flesh; but you, who would be Christians, and who make your boast of Christ, persecute the pious witnesses of Christ, and are Turks after the spirit” (Martyr’s Mirror).
As can be imagined, this response did not lead to his immediate acquittal. The town clerk, in attendance at the trial, responded to Sattler, “You desperate villain and archheretic, I tell you if there were no hangman here, I would hang you myself, and think that I had done God service” (Martyr’s Mirror). He seemed to be speaking for the judges as well. The sentence they passed read:
“In the case of the Governor of his Imperial Majesty versus Michael Sattler, judgment is passed, that Michael Sattler shall be delivered to ‘the executioner, who shall lead him to the place of execution, and cut out his tongue; then throw him upon a wagon, and there tear his body twice with red hot tongs; and after he has been brought without the gate, he shall be pinched five times in the same manner” (Martyr’s Mirror).
The men who were with him were later executed by the sword and the women, including his wife, were drowned. His chief crime was believing that Christ’s Kingdom was not of this earth, and that because it is not His disciples do not fight. In an age where Christians are exceedingly obsessed with gaining and maintaining power to protect our social interests, and where various religious radicals use violence to terrorize civilians and governments, Sattler’s approach stands out. It seeks to conquer not by violence or threats of violence, but by refusing to compromise on the non-violent, non-retaliatory faith that Christ once for all delivered unto the saints.
Martyr’s Mirror. Retrieved June 11, 2016, from
Schleitheim Confession. Retrieved June 12, 2016, from
Snyder, C. A. (1984). The life and thought of Michael Sattler. Kindle edition.
Yoder, J. H., & Sattler, M. (1973). The legacy of Michael Sattler. Kindle edition.
When Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 (after being granted the status of an approved religion by Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D), believers found themselves responding in one of two ways. Some basked in their new found power and luxury, holding it over the now disenfranchised class of pagans. We’ll call them the Constantinians. Others, the monastics, sought to check out of this new institutionally supported Christianity which they saw as sensual and double-minded. These extremes ignored a third option–to simply participate in society as one group among many and allow evangelization to happen through freely established relationships instead of coercion which mitigates against sincerity on the part of the coerced. This model was at least implicitly affirmed by the New Testament writers who demanded no revolution but only asked for toleration and freedom to worship and evangelize.
This false dilemma was recapitulated at the time of the Protestant Reformation, during which time the Roman Catholics and Magisterial Protestants sought to crush religious dissent via the power of the state while the Anabaptists went into hiding and designated Christian participation within the larger society, and particularly in politics, as sinful.
Fast forward to the summer of 2015 in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that same sex marriage is a civil right. Prior to (and precipitating) this ruling, the majority of confessing evangelicals and Roman Catholics had demanded that their government maintain in the law a Christian value judgment on marriage which they were not willing to replace with a more pluralistic non-religious entitlement such as civil unions. After the ruling, with one new view of marriage backed by the force of the state, Christians are increasingly anxious that this new entitlement will lead to government discrimination against Christians.
For these Constantinian Christians, politics is a zero-sum game. If a non-Christian group gains something, this means Christians have lost something. The debate over gay marriage was set up intentionally to be this kind of arrangement, but the risk of becoming a displaced special class was considered worth it if it meant that their side might prevail.
That the debate over gay marriage was nothing more than a power play can be demonstrated by comparing how conservative Christians compare this ruling with other, more egregious ones. For instance, the Dred Scott Decision which came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, declaring that slaves did not have the same rights as free persons and thus undermining the Christian belief in human equality before God, is not generally considered to be a loss for Christianity because Christians as a group lost no political power. But as power has now been wrested from the hands of Constantinian Christianity, American Christians are saying, as one evangelical writer did, “I am horribly grieved that a lifestyle that is so contrary to Christian morality is being celebrated in a country that once honored Christian values.”
It is, of course, not Christian values which America has honored, but Christian hegemony, even if it comes at the risk of sacrificing Christian values. As such, American Christians generally believe that there are two options open to them in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision–fight for the return of their political power or remove themselves from society.
May I humbly suggest that we still have a third option?
I once heard Phil Burress, head of the religiously and politically conservative organization Citizens for Community Values, talk about the political work that his group had done. While most of it was pretty standard religious right stuff like campaigning against pornography and gambling, one issue stuck out. He spoke of legislation they supported which protected exotic dancers from being groped by customers.
What made this cause unique was that instead of simply working to shut down strip clubs (which CCV would no doubt be in favor of), they were seeking to protect women who found themselves working in jobs which were morally objectionable. They were essentially saying to these women, “what makes you valuable isn’t whether or not you refrain from engaging in behavior I find to be morally wrong, but that you are made in the image of God. As such, I want to show honor to you as a child of God that He loves.”
While Christians who have the freedom to participate in the political process need to take this responsibility seriously, we often imbue it with too much importance. We forget that the world and its people are fallen, and we are shocked and dismayed when it behaves accordingly. If American Christianity has lost the battle against legally recognized gay marriage, what does this loss teach us that we didn’t already know? We live in a country where people who are willing to live and let live can do more or less anything else they choose to. The benefit of such an arrangement is that as Christians we have the freedom to explore our faith without fear of reprisal. The corollary to this is that others are also free to reject Christian belief and behavior.
Is our key responsibility to these people to consolidate political power and treat them as our opponents in order to remind them who’s in charge; or is it to treat them as human beings made in God’s image? June 26, 2015 may stand as American Constantinianism’s Waterloo, but it need not be Christianity’s. God’s grace has and will conquer. If we respond with love and humility toward those whom Christ died for, it can be our Milvian Bridge.
One of the perennial difficulties in Christian theology is the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. Perhaps the strongest proponent for discontinuity between the Testaments, Marcion the second century Gnostic, famously rejected the Old Testament revelation as canon and removed Old Testament references from the New Testament writings to create a fiercely anti-Hebrew canon. This would have been difficult work indeed, since G.K. Beale, referencing a personal study by Roger Nicole, noted, “295 separate quotations of the OT in the NT (including quotations with and without formulas). These make up about 4.5 percent of the entire NT, about 352 verses. Thus 1 out of 22.5 verses in the NT incorporates a quotation.”1 It is no surprise then that C.H. Dodd claimed that the Old Testament formed the essential substructure of the New.2 If the New Testament authors were so eager to quote the Old Testament, this raises the question of how they viewed it and used it in their writings. Did they seek to argue that the revelation of Jesus Christ was in major continuity or discontinuity with the Old Testament? Were their citations of the Old Testament to support New Testament ideas exegetically warranted, or were their concepts being read into writings which were fundamentally against the message they were seeking to disseminate? In this essay, I hope to show that the key to understanding how these two bodies of writing relate can be discerned by how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament.
To begin with, there are numerous Old Testament passages referenced in the New Testament as direct prophecies of Christ. For instance, Acts 8:32-33 quotes Isaiah 53:7-8 and claims that Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecy was really of Jesus. More interesting for our purposes are those passages which seem to claim that Christ is recapitulating Old Testament figures. Paul, for instance, claims that Jesus fully reversed the curse that Adam brought upon humanity (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45). Jesus is also, at numerous times and by numerous authors, compared to David and related to Old Testament texts about David with the indication that he has fulfilled the Davidic covenant (Mark 11:10, Luke 1:32, John 7:42, Acts 2:30-36, Acts 13:45, Acts 15:16, Romans 1:1-4, Revelation 3:7). These examples show that the apostolic writings didn’t always simply exegete what the Old Testament said, but that they saw the Hebrew scriptures as prefiguring Christ even when Christ wouldn’t necessarily have been seen as having been in view by the pre-Christ reader.
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this hermeneutic is Matthew 2:15. Matthew claims that Hosea 11:1, wherein God reminds Israel that He called them out of Egypt, was fulfilled when Christ was called out of Egypt. Regarding the plain sense of Hosea will by no means lead a reader to see any future fulfillment of Hosea’s passage—it was after all a reference to a past event. However, Jesus, the unique Son of God and the perfect representative of Israel, could be compared by Matthew to Israel to emphasize the typological fulfillment of Israel in its head, the King Messiah. Notes Jonathan Lunde:
“Consequently, ‘what is said of one figure can then be applied to another who fits within the identity of the group or who serves as its representative.’ This assumption allows NT writers to craft arguments that pivot on relationships between Jesus and the nation or its corporate representatives. It also reverberates under the surface of the titles that are applied to Jesus, such as the Son of God, the Servant, and the Son of Man. Snodgrass notes: [These] were all representative titles that were applied to Israel first. Jesus took on these titles because he had taken Israel’s task. He was representative of Israel and in solidarity with her. God’s purposes for Israel were now taken up in his ministry. If this were true, what had been used to describe Israel could legitimately be used of him.”3
Matthew was not unique in seeing Messiah as the perfect Israelite and as Israel’s representative. Isaiah’s Servant Songs (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52:13-53:12) seem to go back and forth between describing Israel and describing their unique Messianic representative who brings peace and healing to the nations where they have failed to do so. These songs culminate in Isaiah 53, where the Servant Messiah is said to be crushed for the iniquities of Israel despite their having gone astray. Clearly God has two “servants” in mind, or else one could not redeem the other:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, NIV).
This New Testament view of recapitulation finds fulfillment not only of persons and nations, but even if holy objects. The temple of God in the Old Covenant was the place in which deity resided, where He dwelt among His people, and where propitiatory sacrifices were offered to atone for the sins of the people of God. And yet John tells us that Jesus, speaking of His own body, said to the Jewish leaders, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19, ESV).
What we see in these typological fulfillments is both continuity and discontinuity. There is continuity in that the entirety of the Old Testament looked forward to its fulfillment in Christ, and yet the fact that there is fulfillment suggests something new and different which was in some senses unlike what had come before. Though Christ’s sacrifice made the temple and the priests obsolete, for instance, He also affirmed their underlying meaning. The acceptance of such a continuity only requires the acceptance of one presupposition: that, as G.K. Beale wrote, “history is unified by a wise and sovereign plan so that the earlier parts are designed to correspond and point to the later parts.”4 Therefore, there is no more significant discontinuity in the temple sacrifices pointing forward to Christ then there was in God’s giving animal skins to Adam to point forward to the temple sacrifices.
Focusing on recapitulation provides us with a broad overview of the Old and New Testament continuity/discontinuity, but how does it look when dealing with specific biblical issues? At this point, we will turn to two such difficulties in particular.
One particularly thorny problem for resolving continuity/discontinuity between the Testaments is the relationship between law and grace. Since the Old Testament is founded on the revelation of God’s Torah to the wandering Israelites, and since the apostle Paul seems to denigrate the law as being counter to grace, a surface reading of scripture might cause one to presume a large degree of discontinuity on this issue.
Paul tells the Galatian church, of which many members had been keeping strict observance of the Torah, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13, ESV) and “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, ESV). But is Paul saying that Christians should reject the idea of moral duties and ignore the Old Testament witness of God’s holiness as an example for us? May it never be! Paul himself quite explicitly explains the issue he was addressing: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4, ESV). The problem was not that these Christians revered the Torah—it was that they thought strict observance of it could save them.
Moreover, Paul did not think of the Old Testament saints as having been saved by law in contrast to the church which is saved by grace. Paul speaks of two Old Testament figures in particular and concludes, “‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness…’ just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin'” (Romans 4:3-8, ESV). Indeed, Paul claims the Old Testament was written “for our instruction” (Romans 15:4, ESV) and that we ought to “uphold the law” (Romans 3:31, ESV).
According to Paul, the Old Testament people of God were not saved by keeping the law, but in fact, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20, ESV). Salvation by grace is not new, but is testified to in the Old Testament writings: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (Romans 3:21, ESV).
Finally, Paul makes it quite clear that the Old Testament saints were not justified by their good works, but the blood of Christ covered them:
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:23-26, ESV).
There is therefore not fundamental discontinuity between the Testaments on this point. However, this directs us to our second difficulty. If the Torah still has value for Christians, what of its civil laws? Are Christians obligated to establish a neo-Mosaic state (theonomy) with the same legal requirements that God expected from the Israelites?
To begin with, Jesus Himself claimed that there was a distinction between church and state when He was tested by the Pharisees on whether religious Jews should pay taxes to a pagan state. His famous answer: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21, ESV).
This distinction was also supported by Paul, who told Christians, “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19, ESV), but said of the pagan state, “let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1, ESV). It is of note that Paul was speaking of a pagan state which would shortly be in the business of oppressing Christians. Paul was not claiming that the government always acts in accordance with God’s moral values, but that God is sovereign enough to ensure that His will be done even by pagan dictators. This is the same point made by Old Testament prophets such as Habakkuk and Jeremiah who spoke of pagan Babylon’s coming subjugation of Judah.
But what makes this church/state distinction characteristic of the New Covenant when it wasn’t characteristic of the Israelite state? One might make an analogy to Jeremiah’s contrast (in Jeremiah 31:31-34) of the Old Covenant laws written on stone (emphasizing that covenant’s physicality and spatiality) to the New Covenant laws written on the hearts of God’s elect (emphasizing this covenant’s spiritual nature). Jesus, when asked by Pilate why His followers wouldn’t fight to release Him since He is a king, responded, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36, ESV). This is not to say that there is no future kingdom of God which is political in nature, only that it is not now that kind of kingdom (see 1 Corinthians 15:24).
However, even with these important distinctions which argue for discontinuity between the Testaments, one might argue that these is in fact more continuity on the issue of civil laws than not. For one thing, even the civil laws of the Torah are supported by eternal moral values, and both are written for our edification. The penalties might change (as God Himself made exceptions for the death penalty in the cases of David, Moses, Paul, etc., suggesting the mutability of the civil laws’ legal requirements), but the values supporting these laws remains. More than that, however, the Old Testament itself suggests that the elect are held to a higher standard than the non-elect. For example, in Amos we find God judging the pagan nations based on broad moral categories that are accessible to all men while He judges Judah specifically for its covenant unfaithfulness. Dennis Kinlaw concludes of Amos’ words of judgment, “we might say that Yahweh judges the other nations by natural law.”5 If God requires something different from the elect than the non-elect, and since the elect in the New Covenant are an ecclesial and not a political grouping it would not be appropriate to establish a theonomic state. In other words, while God’s moral law (which is expressed in Israel’s civil laws) is eternal and therefore retains continuity with the New Testament, Jesus’ coming changes the way these laws are to be expressed by God’s covenant people.
Recall how C.H. Dodd characterized the Old Testament—as the substructure of the New. The earliest Christians had no New Testament, so the Old Testament was their Bible. That this valuation of the Old Testament remains for Christians today is established by the fact that the apostolic writings utilized the Old Testament as the fertile ground of New Testament revelation. The key to the Old Testament’s use is to read it as the apostles did—christocentrically. Which is to say as the revelation of God and the ground for all of God’s promises which are fulfilled in Christ.
1Beale, G.K. Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Kindle Edition.
2Note the subtitle of C.H. Dodd’s According to the Scriptures: The Substructure of New Testament Theology.
3Berding and Lunde editors, Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Kindle Edition.
4Beale, G.K. Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Kindle Edition.
5John N. Oswalt and Dennis F. Kinlaw, Lectures in Old Testament Theology, Kindle Edition.
From the time that Christianity became the official state religion of Rome (under Theodosius I in 391) until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the church was almost universally united in its acceptance that coercion must be connected with faith. One group in particular resisted this trend– the Anabaptists. Their view of freedom in faith separated them from the majority of Protestants (the Magisterial Reformation) as well as Roman Catholics and caused them to be viewed with suspicion by both groups.
An event took place in January 21, 1525 that we would think of as commonplace today, but it was perhaps the most revolutionary event during the Protestant Reformation. This was when two followers of the Magisterial Reformer Ulrich Zwingli chose to baptize one another. Roger Olson explains:
“While that may not seem a particularly courageous thing to do now, at the time it was. Refusing infants baptism and rebaptizing persons was illegal because it was considered both heretical and seditious. These Brethren, as they called themselves, had all experienced life-changing conversions and after careful study of the New Testament had come to believe that infant baptism is not true baptism because it precedes repentance and faith. Zwingli had refused their efforts to abolish it and the Zurich city council had threatened them with punishment if they acted on their beliefs” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle Edition).
If baptism seemingly came after repentance in the New Testament, why were the actions of these Anabaptists (a compound word meaning “to baptize again”) considered so dangerous to the church and to the state? Put simply, this doctrine undermined the broader church’s insistence upon coercion in faith.
In Roman Catholic thinking, infant baptism achieved two important goals:
1. It removed the stain of original sin, thus saving, without their will or even awareness, the souls of the infants who were baptized.
2. It made the church into the cement which held society together.
Both of these goals imply that a true conversion of the person is not the central concern when administering the sacrament of baptism. Indeed, the individual was believed to be saved by the actions of others (God and the Church) on his behalf apart from his own will or actions. Later, when this individual was capable of making a choice to reject or affirm the grace given at baptism, it was the coercive force of society, backed by its laws and threat of punishment, that was expected to keep him focused upon following Christ.
In defense of the Roman Catholic position here, it at the very least allowed that the individual could, after the age of accountability, make a grace-enabled choice to continue with Christ, or else to fall away. However, the major view of the Magisterial Reformers was that God not only enabled sinners to come to Him, but that this enabling coerced the sinner into salvation and was withheld from those whom God determined not to save. The Magisterial Reformers, in contrast to the so-called Radical Reformers (the Anabaptists) such as Balthasar Hubmaier, still maintained the need for infant baptism:
“Hubmaier likened infant baptism to an inn hanging out a sign announcing its fine wine before the growing season. It is presumptuous. Of course, Luther and Zwingli both defended infant baptism on the ground that faith is a gift of God and not a contingent, free decision. Their monergistic views of salvation form at least part of their foundations for the practice” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle Edition).
An important concession to make here is that since these Reformers believed that only those whom God chose would be saved, not everyone baptized would necessarily be saved, since not all who were baptized were necessarily God’s elect. However, the Magisterial Reformer Martin Luther and his followers, oddly, taught that infants could respond in faith to God’s effectual calling, so that their faith at the time of baptism saved them (see here). John Calvin, in his Institutes, also argued against the Anabaptist position, claiming that withholding baptism for infants was unchristian:
“Paul comprehends the whole Church when he says that it was cleansed by the washing of water. In like manner, from his expression in another place, that by baptism we are ingrafted into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 7:13), we infer, that infants, whom he enumerates among his members, are to be baptised, in order that they may not be dissevered from his body” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4, 16, 22).
For both Roman Catholics and the Magisterial Reformers, teaching against infant baptism was dangerous as it was believed to undermine God’s sovereignty and (for the Roman Catholics especially) called into question the state of the unbaptized infant. In stark contrast, the Anabaptists taught that baptism followed repentance and thus they baptized converted adults at the risk of their own lives.
This last point leads us into the second type of coercion that the Roman Catholic Church and Magisterial Reformers supported– that of the state.
The position of the Anabaptists was well explicated by Balthasar Hubmaier:
“Hubmaier wrote that ‘the inquisitors are the greatest heretics of all, because counter to the teaching and example of Jesus they condemn heretics to fire. . . . For Christ did not come to slaughter, kill, burn, but so that those who live should live yet more abundantly.’ He urged especially religious authorities to use only the weapon of God’s Word against those they perceive as heretics and to hope and pray for their repentance rather than kill them” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle Edition).
Those who sought to connect church and state (the Roman Catholics and Magisterial Reformers) held a very different view. The great Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica gave perhaps the most eloquent defense for violence against heretics that could be rationalized:
“I reply that, with regard to heretics, two considerations are to be kept in mind: (1) on their side, (2) on the side of the Church. (1) There is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be shut off from the world by death. For it is a much more serious matter to corrupt faith, through which comes the soul’s life, than to forge money, through which temporal life is supported… If he be found still stubborn, the Church gives up hope of his conversion and takes thought for the safety of others, by separating him from the Church by sentence of excommunication; and, further, leaves him to the secular court, to be exterminated from the world by death” (quoted from Bettenson & Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, p.141)
Likewise, the Protestant reformer Zwingli consented to the capital punishment of those he viewed as heretics (despite the fact that he was afforded the luxury to speak against the Roman Catholic Church), as did John Calvin (most famously in the execution of Michael Servetus). Though Luther acknowledged that a heretic should not be molested for holding his views in secret, he believed that the heretic who shared his views deserved the punishment of the magistrate. Though he felt that using the sword against heretics was cruel, he felt that “it is crueler that they condemn the ministry of the Word and have no well-grounded doctrine and suppress the true and in this way seek to subvert the civil order” (quoted from Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 376).
Even apart from the question of whether heretics should receive the death penalty, the status quo view of the church at the time was that the state’s job was to uphold the church and use the force that the church could not, though was necessary to ensure a Christian state. In Reformation circles, this has often been referred to as theonomy. The Anabaptists stood out from their culture and saw such an arrangement as leading to an insincere, merely cultural Christianity that Jesus would spit out of His mouth.
Freedom in Christ
In this article, I have set up a contrast between freedom and coercion. Though they were imperfect, the Orthodox Anabaptist Christians give a fair representation of what free Christianity looks like, and they managed to apply this concern for free individual conversion across the board:
1. Though grace is necessary for repentance and conversion, God does not force anyone to convert. He gives the individual the freedom to accept or reject Him, which comes from a grace-enabled will.
2. As a result, baptism, a sacrament that represents being reborn into Christ, should only be given after the individual actually is reborn into Christ, which happens during conversion.
3. Since true faith can only come from someone who freely chooses to trust in God, there can be no coercion in faith on the part of the state. This also requires a relationship between church and state that is not so entangled as to compromise freedom of faith or freedom of expression (let alone preaching). Heresy must be silenced by a thoughtful expression of true Christian faith and good conduct, not by threats of violence.
As one can see, this arrangement is consistent. Underlying all of these concerns is the belief that God wants true converts who choose Him freely. To remove these values is to posit a faith which is based on coercion and is thus no true faith. To hold to some of these values but not others is to hold to inconsistency. The Christian who believes that God desires true repentance while demanding that the state use force to make society look ostensibly Christian, for instance, is holding to incoherence.
“Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:15-17, ESV).