In the light of the Supreme Court’s decision this last week, where they sought to sanctify and dignify something that God has declared confused and abominable, our responsibility as Christians to think through a biblical understanding of our relationship to the state becomes even more pressing.
We have already learned that no human government is absolute, and that when a human authority commands us contrary to the law of God, we must obey God rather than man. But now we must consider what to do when a lesser authority commands us contrary to the lawful requirements of a higher human authority. In short, we have to discuss whether limited government is a biblical concept. I want to argue that it is, by good and necessary consequence. Unlimited government is, by definition, idolatrous.
“Then these presidents and princes assembled together to the king, and said thus unto him, King Darius, live for ever . . . Then these men assembled, and found Daniel praying and making supplication before his God” (Daniel 6:6–11).
Regardless . . .
At this time in his story, Daniel is an old man, and his political enemies contrived to get a law passed that would make Daniel’s prayer to God illegal. As soon as the law is passed, Daniel, in accordance with his station, goes home, opens the windows, and prays facing Jerusalem, as was his custom. Darius labored within the legal system to save him, but Daniel was not going to change regardless. Sometimes a higher human authority is on your side, and sometimes not, but in either case obedience to God comes first. Moreover, open obedience to God comes first. There was no requirement in biblical law to pray with your windows open, but under the leadership of the Spirit, Daniel was ready for a confrontation.
The teaching of Scripture requires us to see all post-biblical history with biblical eyes. The Bible does not give us an inspired narrative of our history, but it does give us prophecy of how that history will go, and also gives us doctrinal guardrails so that we can stay on the road. We have a responsibility, which we have grossly neglected, to teach our children the mighty acts of God with regard to those times where we had no inspired historians. At the same time, in talking about these circumstances, it is crucial that we do so in a hard-headed biblical way, and without a hagiographic high gloss finish.
Old Testament case law —in Scripture, law is overwhelmingly incarnational. That is, it is commonly enfleshed in particular situations, from which wise men should always be able to derive the principle. Each law carries its own version of “general equity.” For example, consider the requirement of Deuteronomy 22:8.
Alfred the Great —in the history of our culture, Alfred (849-899) was responsible for the establishment of this system of common law. This particular heritage runs so deep that it cannot be rejected as easily as some secularists might wish. And this is why we have written constitutions.
Humane law and lawful men —a central part of our scriptural heritage is that fact that we have a biblical view of men as sinners, and the need to honor “checks and balances.” This is not something that began in 1776, but rather was part of our received and ancient heritage. We fought the English government over this, but it was for the sake of a political tradition that the English discovered. In short, the Declaration was simply Magna Carta 2.0.
Romans 13? —now this Christian history changes the picture entirely. For example, suppose an office-holder, sworn to uphold the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, takes you aside and wants you to join him in rebelling against it. An example of this can be found in the Supreme Court’s decision just a few days ago. Do you obey him (“because of” Romans 13), or do you do the biblical thing and disregard him because of Romans 13? Disregard is the biblical response, and it is because these judges are manifest rebels against the document that is senior to them—the Constitution—as well as being rebels against the authority behind the Constitution, which would be the people. And never forget, Christ is over all.
An Historical Illustration
The American War for Independence provides us with a dear example of this issue. Remember, we are to consider history as Christians, and not mindless partisans. Therefore we do not have a simplistic “white hats” and “black hats” approach.
Usurpation —the parliament of England did not have any constitutional authority over the colonies. This did not prevent them from claiming they did. The king, who had a feudal obligation to protect the colonies, refused to do so. Their obligation to him as vassals therefore ceased. They never did have any obligations to Parliament.
Resistance, not revolution —this is why the War for Independence was an example of godly civil resistance, and not an ungodly revolt against established authority—like the French or Russian revolutions were.
But . . . American Exceptionalism?
The question I think we must get right revolves around the idea of American exceptionalism. The phrase admits of various meanings, some of them sound and therefore not all that exceptional, and some of them grotesquely heretical. Different meanings of the phrase have been more than a descriptor of American history, and have actually been something of a driver.
The phrase can be of the Madisonian variety, or it may be merely descriptive, as it appears to have been for de Tocqueville, or it might be used to justify our “Manifest Destiny” march to the Pacific, or lie behind the neo-con desire to remake the Middle East. This is a question that winds all the way through American history, and it is the exceptionalism of the Founding that we need to preserve. The Founders knew that we were not exceptional, and that was exceptional. This is not a contradiction in logic, but rather an exercise in what the Lord taught when He said that the first would be last and the last first.
Ozymandian pride is as old as dirt, but humility leads to greatness. In the Old Testament there was Babylonian exceptionalism, which reduced Nebuchadnezzar to a level of bovine exceptionalism. There was Assyrian exceptionalism, which God judged. At the time of Christ, there was Pharisaical exceptionalism—where carnal men took the sovereign election of Israel by God, and turned it upside down so that they could take personal pride in it. In the post-biblical era, the Franks were exceptional. So were the Visigoths in Spain. Then there was Austro-Hungarian exceptionalism, followed of course by German exceptionalism. The same heresy cropped up in England, and then again in the United States. It is like looking at a long row of jitney messiahs, all of them made out of tin.
But there was for a time a true exceptionalism at the time of the American Founding. Here is James Madison.
“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself” (James Madison, Federalist 51).
The entire system of government established by the Founders had a biblical genius to it, in that it regarded as axiomatic that Americans were not ever to be trusted, and were a nation of hustlers, mountebanks, and scamps. This really was genuinely insightful.
Lord of All History
“Daniel answered and said: ‘Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, for wisdom and might are His. And He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings; He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding” (Dan. 2:19-23).
What God does —Daniel is clear on the fact that God in heaven rules over the affairs of men. Even Nebuchadnezzar, once recovered from his insanity, understood this (Dan. 4:34-35). A refusal to acknowledge this is the heart of insanity and madness.
The God who does it —in order for us to understand the events around us, and our role in them, we must recover a biblical vision of the Godness of God.
Whom do we serve? The god of contemporary religion is an idol and a loser. The gods we have fashioned in the forge of our own brains are not the God of the Bible (Is. 40:12-31). Who is the Lord? Who has known Him? Who has the power to define Him down to theological putty that men may shape as it pleases them?
We as a people will recover our liberty when we recover a biblical vision of God, and not a day before.