Some biblical reflections on political theology:
I have written often on the important matters mentioned in my title. The main emphases I have always run with are these: 1) God created civil government for a fallen world; 2) generally speaking we are to submit to these authorities; 3) the state however is not absolute; and 4) sometimes we must in good conscience resist or disobey the state.
Here I want to look at one particular aspect of this. Specifically, I will deal with this question: Are the instructions found in Jeremiah 27 and 29 basically the Old Testament equivalent to God’s instructions to the church in Romans 13:1-7? For those not familiar with those OT texts, they have to do with the following:
Jeremiah had told the Israelites not to resist Nebuchadnezzar and the invading Babylonians, but to fully submit. This invasion was the consequence of the people’s continuous sin and disobedience. So God was now using this evil pagan nation as his instrument of judgment. Yahweh even calls this evil ruler “my servant” in Jer. 25:9; 27:6; and 43:10.
In brief, my answer to this question is this: the specific, one-off commands given to Israel concerning full submission to Babylon as they destroy Jerusalem and the temple and take away many Israelites into captivity is not a generic template for all times and all places and all people. The Romans 13 instructions are however – although within limits, as I have discussed elsewhere: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/05/15/the-state-is-not-absolute/
Just as God’s command to the Israelites much earlier on to take Canaan and engage in all-out holy warfare against the pagan peoples was a specific one-off command to Israel, and not a blanket order for everyone else, so too here. This command to go along with the Babylonians and not resist was a particular, specific order that was never meant to be regarded as some generic piece of advice for all believers everywhere.
And yet various Christians try to find real close parallels between these texts. Sure, in a very general way we can of course do this. And this comes down to how we understand God’s sovereignty. In a sense God controls everything, including governments and leaders. But that does not minimise human responsibility, including the responsibility of believers to be salt and light, to resist – in various ways – evil, and to oppose injustice and oppression at certain times and places.
The theological discussion here of course will always be somewhat blurry, and many questions abound. My take on this has always been as follows: in the Old Testament God raised up prophets to tell God’s people exactly and specifically what he was doing or wanted to do in various situations.
That was certainly the case with the Babylonian captivity. For decades Jeremiah and the prophets had been warning that judgment was coming if the people would not amend their ways. And sure enough it came, and Jeremiah told the Israelites that Babylon was God’s direct means of bringing about such judgment. So all they could do was fully submit and not resist.
But today we do not have the same inerrant, inspired prophets as we did back then. The biblical canon is now closed. At best we can take the general principles of Scripture and seek to apply them to the events of the day. And bear in mind that during this whole period when Yahweh was speaking through his prophet Jeremiah, very specific and detailed instructions were given to the Israelite leaders. Consider what we find in Jer. 38:17-18 for example:
“Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: If you will surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live. But if you do not surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then this city shall be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and you shall not escape from their hand’.”
So all these divinely-inspired instructions were time- and location-specific for the ancient Israelites. It seems foolish to think they are some sort of over-arching, binding set of instructions for believers today. And let me offer just one example of how we might seek to work this out.
Consider Hitler and the Nazis who took over so many nations and killed so many people, before finally being stopped by the Allies. If the instructions found in Jeremiah were some sort of grand template to be applied to all other situations of war, imperialism and invasion, then of course we were wrong to oppose the Nazis. We were then actually fighting against God as we sought to liberate Europe and put a halt to the Nazis and the horrific Holocaust.
But as far as I know, we had no clear word from God that he had chosen Hitler as his specific instrument of judgment on sinful Germans, sinful Europeans, or a sinful global population. I am not aware of any Christian ‘prophets’ back then telling believers they should just fully go along with Hitler and not resist him as he was ‘God’s servant’ of judgment, etc.
I recently received a comment on these matters by an American pastor. He appealed to John Calvin and David VanDrunen in arguing that Jer. 27 and 29 are in many respects the OT equivalents of Rom. 13. He also raised these issues in terms of being willing to submit to various government Covid mandates, including mask wearing.
What I just said above is part of my response to him, but more can be said, especially in relation to Calvin and VanDrunen. So what follows are some specific responses to this pastor which hopefully will also be relevant and useful for other believers in terms of a broader discussion of these various issues. Here then are six main points, spread out over a two-part article.
One. The comment by this pastor that I am now replying to was actually a rather large slab of a rather large article he had penned. As such, a relatively short comment in reply would not have done this topic justice. Thus this article. You can see his actual comment here: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/07/13/romans-13-revisited/
Two. I of course have Calvin’s Institutes, and I have four of VanDrunen’s books, including the one that the pastor quotes from. So let me deal with each in turn. Just a few brief words about Calvin can be offered here – and again, I am writing for a general audience here just as much as for one particular person and his earlier comment.
The last chapter of Calvin’s Institutes (Book 4, Chapter 20) is a short (26 pages in my version) discussion “On Civil Government.” In IV.20.27 he does indeed discuss Jer. 27, saying this in part: “even the most iniquitous kings are appointed by the same decree which established all regal authority.”
And contra to what I said above, in IV.20.28 he says this: “It is vain to object, that that command was specially given to the Israelites.” Here we of course differ. But he does go on in IV.20.32 to state:
But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offence of Him for whose sake you obey men! The Lord, therefore, is King of kings. When he opens his sacred mouth, he alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord….
Thus I hope that Calvin – if he were alive last century – would not have used Jer. 27 to urge all Christians to be fully submissive to Hitler and the Nazis as they overran one nation after another. And I trust that he would not have viewed the Holocaust as something we must just resign ourselves to as being God’s will for us.
I hope he would not have rebuked the many brave believers who did feel a divine call to fully resist the diabolical Nazis – believers such as Bonhoeffer, Niemöller, the Scholls, etc. Thankfully there was a minority of these brave Christian leaders and thinkers who knew what was at stake, and opposed the rise of an evil, totalist state that was happening all around them.
I could spend the rest of this article – and many more – discussing Calvin’s views on such topics. And we could also look at his various commentaries and sermons on the relevant passages about this. But let me finish this section by offering just a few volumes that can be recommended on such matters:
Kelly, Douglas, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World. P&R, 1992.
Larson, Mark, Calvin’s Doctrine of the State. Wipf and Stock, 2009.
Witte, John, The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism. Cambridge, 2007.
Part Two of this article is found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/08/23/scripture-government-submission-and-resistance-part-two/