Scripture, Government, Submission and Resistance – Part Two
Some biblical reflections on political theology:
Three. I wish to spend much more of my time on VanDrunen. I do find much of what he says to be useful and on point, although I do not agree with all that he writes. Consider first his promotion of Two Kingdoms theology, of which he is a somewhat more moderate representative. Obviously not everyone in Puritan and Reformed circles fully concurs with this position.
Many, such as Frame, Sproul, Gamble, Kloosterman, Littlejohn, et. al., beg to differ, and some have penned entire books to critique Two Kingdoms doctrine (see for example John Frame, The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology – Whitefield Media, 2011). And some, like Douglas Wilson, have at least criticised more radical versions of it.
As to the 2020 VanDrunen book: it has had various critical reviews, offering some areas of disagreement. So he has both defenders and critics. But let me deal with a few things he says in the book. As to appealing to Jeremiah, he says this:
Jeremiah 27 and 29 provide perhaps the closest Old Testament counterparts to the explicit descriptions of government legitimacy and its corresponding obligations found in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. . . . Thus a great many pieces of New Testament teaching about the legitimacy of civil authority find precedent here: God’s appointment, the magistrate as divine servant, and the peoples’ obligation to submit to their magistrates and pray for them. (pp. 27-28)
And in Ch. 6 he looks at Israel’s exile and states:
Compared to Abraham’s sojourn, Israel’s experience in exile is a more accessible source of normative guidance for contemporary Christians, for the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter giving the exiles specific instructions for life in Babylon (Jer. 29:4-14). Jeremiah’s letter, supplemented by a number of narratives about exile life, provides a useful picture of what godly behavior in exile looked like. Three things stand out. . . . These instructions in Jeremiah 29 and their application in Daniel are consistent with the parameters of Christian political theology laid out in chapter 1. (pp. 154-156 – emphasis added)
Um, it seems to me he is conflating things here and begging the question. That Jeremiah gave specific instructions to the Israelites as to how they should live in their divinely appointed exile is clear. But that these particular instructions then are something normative for Christians today is far from clear.
As I stated above, that would be to assume that every time some rapacious ruler or evil nation invades some other country, this is not only God’s express will, but it is something the subject people must readily submit to, because it is divine judgment upon them. Again, show me the ‘prophets’ today who are telling us these exact divine marching orders about such situations.
They may exist, but I suspect that they are wrong. These statements being made by VanDrunen do NOT address how Christians – or anyone else – today should react to imperialism, wars of aggression, and international conquest. By conflating matters he robs believers of a full biblical theology of such things, including the issues of self-defence and just war principles.
But elsewhere he does say things that seem much more helpful in this regard. In his penultimate chapter on “Government Authority” he writes: “Scripture, of course, states on a few occasions that God has ordained civil magistrates and that people should submit to them. But on many more occasions, Scripture exposes their pride and corruption and brings them under divine judgment.” (p. 324)
Yes quite so, and I have written several articles looking at numerous examples of this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/03/24/12-biblical-cases-of-civil-disobedience/
And here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/05/24/more-biblical-cases-of-resisting-the-authorities/
In that chapter he says this about Calvin:
Civil resistance has been a contested issue in the history of the Christian church. Opinion was divided in the early years of my own Reformed tradition. One of its prominent figures, John Calvin, held a famously strict view of people’s obligation to submit to government authorities. . . . In contrast, several of Calvin’s fellow French Reformed leaders promoted a much broader conception of legitimate resistance to tyrants. They appealed to ancient constitutional rights, covenants between ruler and ruled, and the like. My own sentiments run much closer to the views of the latter. (pp. 348-9)
And so do mine. In a footnote he mentions Theodore Beza, Stephanus Junius Brutus, and Francois Hotman. I mention such figures in a piece I did some time ago on key resistance thinkers. I have already penned some articles on individual proponents of resistance theory, and I plan to cover the rest in the days ahead: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/04/12/on-resistance-theory/
Also, VanDrunen even goes on to speak about the possibility of such things as just revolution: “Is there a point at which a government becomes so corrupt, and redressing its injustices through lawful means so futile, that revolution is permissible or even required? Given the arguments thus far, I do not see why not.” (p. 356)
I too have argued this way, although we both concur that believers need to be quite cautious here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/07/11/is-revolution-ever-justified-part-one/
And here: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/07/11/is-revolution-ever-justified-part-two/
But let me raise one more point on this matter of seeing Jer. 27 and 29 as somehow being paradigmatic for Christians today. It involves something VanDrunen says about Pharoah and the provision of services. He writes: “But this can hardly be a model, since the program depended on God’s special revelation of future events to Joseph, knowledge unavailable to government officers today.” (p. 345)
And yet do we not have pretty much the same thing being said when he tries to use Jer. 29 as a model? Simply change a few words around here: “But this can hardly be a model, since the invasion depended on God’s special revelation of future events to Jeremiah, knowledge unavailable to government officers today.”
VanDrunen argues that very specific and detailed instructions given to Joseph about coming events revealed by God should not be used as a template for today, yet he says that very specific and detailed instructions given to Jeremiah about coming events revealed by God should be used as a template for today. While the two situations are mildly different, I agree with what he says about the first case, but not the second.
Four. I want to draw upon just two commentators who discuss the passages in Jeremiah – one an evangelical and one not. As to the former, J. Andrew Dearman says this about Jer. 27 in his 2002 NIVAC commentary:
A modern application of this message must be quick to deny that all peoples who languish under oppressive regimes or that all individuals who suffer emotional and physical exile are bound in these conditions by God’s judgment. Scripture gives no blanket warrant for such a claim. Some people (including some Christians) find unpalatable any thought of oppression and exile as God’s refining judgment. Scripture gives no warrant for that claim either. The issues with which Jeremiah 27 are concerned are those of God’s timing and the larger design of his historical purposes in forming a people for himself. It is simply true that God’s timing is often not “our” timing and God’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). What Jeremiah calls his contemporaries to believe is that their first impulse is wrong. They have yet to see the error of their ways, and until God has dealt with that, there will be no successful liberation from political oppression or anything else….
God is more concerned with the fate of his people and the refining judgment they must undergo. Ultimately God will bring a merciful end to Babylonian supremacy and in the process will restore his people. His goal is (and remains!) to make his people fit vessels for his service, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9).
My non-evangelical commentator is OT scholar Walter Brueggemann. I could draw upon his 1998 commentary, but will instead quote from his 2007 The Theology of the Book of Jeremiah. He writes:
YHWH’s massive sovereignty is always only provisionally allied with any earthly power. Thus, in 27:5-6, there is no doubt that divine sovereignty is committed to the success of Babylon. In verse 7, however, that divine commitment is for the short term; in the end, YHWH’s sovereignty concerns only YHWH’s rule and YHWH’s glory, and no earthly power dare imagine it will finally share in the divine splendor. The “until” of 27:7 anticipates that, by divine decrees, Babylon will be reduced to servitude. The “until” of verse 22 likewise anticipates that YHWH will reverse fields and “give attention” to the Jews in Babylon. In verse 8, the “until” indicates that Babylon’s task is only to complete the destruction of Jerusalem. After that, YHWH has no more business to conduct through Babylon, who is subsequently of no further use. In 29:10 the “until” of chapter 27 is reduced to a standard formula of “seventy years,” but that formulation only serves to specify the terms of “until.”
Five. Since the pastor who sent in the comment raised the issues of Covid mandates and the like in his reflections on Romans 13, let me say two quick things. First, I have of course written well over 100 pieces on the virus, and how governments are using it as a pretext to further consolidate power and control over the masses. Statists love crises and emergencies, and they love ramping up the fear.
And second, I and others have sought to warn about the ominous parallels we find in the West today in its hysterical and fear-laden response to Covid with all the restrictions on freedom and basic human rights – all to ‘keep us safe’ – and what we saw happening in Germany in the 1930s.
Even some people who survived the Holocaust and are still alive today have pointed this out and are very much concerned about what they are seeing today. They ought to know. Various heavy-handed mandates and restrictions, from church closures to vaccine passports, are cases of clear government overreach, and believers should rightly be greatly concerned about where we are heading with all this.
To be honest, I am not only interested in detailed theological battles in what is an internecine debate amongst certain sections of the church (or what VanDrunen refers to as “parochial Reformed debates” – p. 38). I am also very much concerned about the very real war on freedom – and the war on religious liberty – that I see everywhere occurring because of state hysteria and overreaction to the virus.
So while lengthy, drawn-out theological debates have their place, so too does recognising what sort of world we are now living in – or quickly becoming. That is a very big part of my concern as a Christian, especially so over the past 18 months.
Six. By way of summation, resistance theory is also a very important part of both Reformed and Puritan history and thought. Calvin does not have the last and final word on all these matters. I have a number of articles on this with more on the way. They offer a somewhat different take on these sorts of issues. For those who are interested, see the 50+ pieces found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/category/politics/resistance-theory/
Part One of this article is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/08/23/scripture-government-submission-and-resistance-part-one/
5 Replies to “Scripture, Government, Submission and Resistance – Part Two”
I don’t mean to be trite but calls to authority to determine whether we should submit to authority are simply circular and probably not useful.
You are definitely correct, Bill, and all we need is to know that Moses did not submit to Pharaoh to know you are correct. We will all give account for what we have and have not done. God knows full well our capabilities and whether we have invested our talents or simply buried them. We have ample examples of God expecting people to know and subsequently act on what is right and if we want to please God this is exactly what we should be doing. A faithful servant does what is required without being asked.
Peter, in Acts 5:29,said we must obey God not man, but in 1 Peter 2:13 says to obey authority but by reading to the end of that chapter, Peter seems to be saying more than what compliant Christians today are saying regarding obeying a dictatorship that won’t allow me to live my life, in the full belief that I can personally fight a virus (as God intended- otherwise we would all live in a bubble and be very unhealthy). I don’t believe a single trite verse in 1 Peter is the complete story, hence the comparison of obedience. Then to add to the disobedient people… we have Shadrach, Meshach and Abendego and Daniel who chose to obey god not the pagan gods of Nebuchadnezzar.
Thanks Michael and Christine.
I have found Douglas Wilson’s ministry (via Canon Press) to be very helpful in working through these difficult questions, especially his explanation of the doctrine of the lesser magistrate. It really hit me between the eyes!
In common law countries, Christians must acknowledge that those in power are not free to rule as they please, because our legal and political systems place limits upon those in power. I take this to mean that – consistently with with Romans 13 – if a ruler goes beyond their authority, Christians ought to disobey them, lest we ourselves become complicit in their lawlessness.
Even if a Christian considers Romans 13 more or less absolute, I would have thought there is scope for them to obey an invalid/unjust law but under some form of protest.
Thanks Nick. I speak to some of these issues a bit further here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/02/christians-and-civil-disobedience/
And in my ongoing series on resistance theory I will be speaking more to the notion of the doctrine of the lesser magistrates.