As Christians go back and forth on various political debates, especially concerning the current round of Republican candidates, the old debates about the nature and role of government re-emerge. The various options of statism, socialism, liberalism, welfarism, conservatism, libertarianism, and the like get hotly debated. This is because there are all sorts of places on the political spectrum where Christians can find themselves on.
As I have tried to argue elsewhere, there are some obvious extremes to avoid. For example, some Christians champion extreme libertarian positions to such an extent that they are little better than anarchists. The further one goes with right-wing libertarianism, the closer one gets to left wing anarchism. Such views do not seem to have biblical warrant.
While the Bible may not offer us a complete, detailed political blueprint, it does give us enough information to help us avoid some decidedly unscriptural extremes. If anarchy and antinomianism are real problems, so too are statism and big government.
Christians should be just as concerned about creeping Leviathan as they are about amoral anarchy. Neither one fits the biblical view, and neither one should be championed by biblical Christians. Of course trying to get the biblical balance right is never easy, but we must seek to do so nonetheless.
Now this topic is obviously far too big to do justice to in a short essay, so at best all I can do here is offer some very brief introductory remarks. In fact it may be best to just present a number of quotes along with some loose commentary. A number of things I have been reading in the past several days have coalesced here, so let me seek to tie it all together.
I just bought a book by British theologian Richard Bauckham which has been around for a while, but finding it on sale sealed its fate. So I snatched up God and the Crisis of Freedom (WJK, 2002). It is a collection of eight essays he penned over a twelve year period.
He makes a number of important contributions to the debate, but let me cite just a few points. He reminds us of the great differences between modern, secular understandings of freedom and the biblical version: “The Enlightenment belief in the wholly self-sufficient and self-determining self has led to the asocial, amoral, and isolated individual of contemporary atomized society in the West.”
He continues: “The modern understanding of the self assumed that the individual self inherently has all it needs for its own happiness and requires only to be set free from external constraints. It is this supposed self-sufficiency of the modern self that sets it in opposition both to socialization in human community and to dependence on God.”
But this attempted emancipation from God and others has simply resulted in new tyranny and enslavement: “Only forgetfulness of God makes possible the dream of infinite freedom for humanity. But this dream is an alienating illusion.”
Getting back to the loving triune God is the only way to achieve genuine freedom. Bauckham calls this “the freedom of belonging”: “When I love God and freely make God’s will my own, I am not forfeiting my freedom but fulfilling it. God’s will is not the will of another in any ordinary sense. It is the moral truth of all reality. To conform ourselves freely to that truth is also to conform to the inner law of our own created being.”
He reminds us that freedom to do what is right is what is really important: “Freedom to choose is essential to authentic humanity. But its value does not consist merely in itself. . . . The point is not simply to have choice but to make good rather than bad choices.”
Conformity to God’s will is real freedom. As Rousas Rushdoony put it in his 1984 collection of essays, Law and Liberty, God’s law is the condition of life. “The condition of a fish’s life, its environment, is water; take a fish out of water, and it dies. The condition of a tree’s life, its health and its environment, is the soil; uproot a tree, and you kill it. It is no act of liberation to take a fish out of water, or a tree out of the ground. Similarly, the condition of a man’s life, the ground of man’s moral, spiritual, and physical health, is the law of God. To take men and societies out of the world of God’s law is to sentence them to a decline, fall, and death. Instead of liberation, it is execution. Man’s liberty is under God’s law, and God’s law is the life-giving air of man and society, the basic condition of their existence.”
Of course such thoughts, especially as applied to political considerations, are not new. Several centuries ago Edmund Burke, known as the father of conservatism, said much about such matters. As he once wrote: “The only liberty I mean, is liberty connected with order; that not only exists along with order and virtue, but which cannot exist at all without them.”
One commentator discusses Burke’s conception of ordered liberty this way: “Liberty derives from Natural Law; it is our birthright, forfeited only through irrationality or violence. But liberty is not license to act from sheer self-will. Rather, it is ‘social freedom [Burke’s italics]. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint,’ with no individual or group able to violate the liberty of any other. Moreover, liberty must comport with order—in both the society and the individual soul.
“A believing Christian, Burke knew man’s capacity for evil. Liberty without wisdom and virtue, he warned, ‘is the greatest of all evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition and restraint.’ Liberty can only flourish and be beneficial in an orderly society of moral, religious people. To be fit for freedom, people need self-control and morality.”
He cites a familiar passage from Burke: “Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. . . men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
Self-government, in other words, is the fundamental form of government, and without it, no government can succeed. The classical philosophers also wrote much about this, arguing that the highest good of man was the cultivation of virtue, both private and public.
Complete freedom then is neither desirable nor possible. Let me conclude with the words of Rushdoony: “No such thing as absolute or unlimited liberty is possible or good. More than that, unlimited liberty for man is destructive of liberty itself. . . . Unless every man’s liberty is limited by law, no liberty is possible for any man….
“One of the basic premises of the American system, and a basic article of Christian faith, is that man’s liberty is under law. The purpose of law in the United States, has, historically, been to further liberty by law. Basic to all moral anarchism is the insistence that liberty can be gained only by freedom from law. From the beatniks and hippies to the student left and civil disobedience agitators, this belief in liberty as freedom from law runs deep. To prove that they are free, these immature and perverse minds insist on breaking some laws to demonstrate that they are free men. But moral anarchy is always the prelude to statist tyranny, and this vaunted freedom from law ends always in a freedom from liberty!
“Liberty, then, is under law and it requires careful and conscientious legislation to maintain the social structure in that state of law which best promotes liberty. Limited liberty is the only kind of liberty possible to man. To dream of more is to endanger liberty itself.”
As mentioned, much more needs to be said on these matters, and I have perhaps simply opened a can of worms here. But these issues are well worth thinking about and discussing, especially in light of the current political situation in the US.