Politics in the Beginning

Political Theology in Genesis 1–3

“In the beginning”

So opens Holy Scripture, telling of God’s creation of the world from nothing. When discussing political theology, we must consider the proper place to begin. A Protestant political theology should start with Scripture, particularly Genesis 1-3 and the creation of the world.

God exists, Genesis 1:1 tells us, “[i]n the beginning.” He alone stands without beginning and thus unmade. His first recorded action in Genesis is that He, “created the heavens and the earth.” We must consider the relationship between creator and creature in the political context. We revere our Founders. In this we do not differ from many other political communities who also revere the men or gods who founded their city, whether it be  Solon or Athena. To create involves exercising rule over the created. The creator’s rule stems from a certain right over the creature. The created owes something to his endower as a matter of justice. In addition, the creator rules by defining his creation in its development. This definition involves a fundamental kind of lawmaking—establishing the nature, and thus the end or telos, of the creature. Thus, God calls on animals to reproduce “according to” their “kind” (Genesis 1:11-12, 21, 24-25). Their “kind” entails a set nature for each, a pattern to follow. Put another way, the laws of nature and of reason, as Richard Hooker referred to them in his Lawes, stem from what God made.

God speaking creation into existence (“Let there be”) teaches  a political lesson as well. People talk with reverence regarding the “rule of law.” Such governance requires words; one must communicate the law’s content. It demands that we subject ourselves to its prescription precisely as spoken. God could have created by some other, physical action. His “hands” might have formed the earth, his “fingers” fashioning animals. He did not. He spoke into existence. God’s spoken creation is an act of lawmaking, thus in God’s words we find the supremacy  of law. Rulers can employ power in other, more physical fashions. But the spoken and later written word is primary; physical force secondary and supportive. As primary, verbal governance reveals a rational God, rationally creating the universe, meant to be understood and obeyed by any other rational beings to which He gives existence.

Thus, from the start, God did not intend humans to be ruled like rocks or even like cattle. They were meant to observe, to hear, and to know God’s laws and respond, knowingly and willingly, in obedience. This role for man, implied in God’s very speaking creation into existence, sets him apart. We see rule established in other forms by God’s creative speech. The sun and moon both exist to “rule” (Genesis 1:16) over day and night. The sun and moon order time, including seasons and years. Though both sun and moon are irrational entities “ruling” over irrational entities, the rule found in the natural world reveals a political principle:  even inanimate objects require ordering and some entity to do the ordering. Moreover, we as rational beings must respond to these rulers and to their subjects. These orderings set rhythms for which human laws must account. They help to define our experience in a manner to which governments must conform.

At the end of each day, the good God pronounces His creation “good,” going on to say, “very good” of the creation as a whole. This concept of goodness also directly affects political life. God creates in conformity with His own nature. Politics seeks the good. Thus, it must know the good to rightly pursue its end. Genesis tells us that politics, to know the good on earth, must know the creating One who is good first and foremost. As all other goods stem from His, and pale in comparison to His, the student of politics must also be a student of theology proper. To know God is to understand the ends of political life—the righteousness and justice political power acts to achieve.

This task helps us to consider man as created in God’s image. John Calvin locates the substantive portion of this image in our own righteousness and holiness. Politically speaking, we show the image of God in us when we think, feel, and act justly. Good politics, therefore, reinforces this divine image, so tarnished by the events of Genesis 3.  Just political action falls far short of regeneration and sanctification. But it does push us to act as we ought, making a small recovery of our unfallen nature.

The Creation Mandate

We next turn to the laws God gives human beings. Yes, creating man with a fixed nature establishes laws for him. But God gives explicit commands to Adam, rules that help explain his nature and thus his purpose. First, God commands mankind, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” In tandem with this command, God finds no suitable helper for Adam until He creates Eve. This requirement addresses an important starting point for considering the human beings who will inhabit political communities. Some political philosophers start from the perspective of the individual, especially Early Moderns like John Locke. Others begin from the communal view, with ancients like Aristotle and Plato leading the way. Early moderns certainly saw a role for human community, and ancients did not ignore the individual. However, which perspective  you start with makes a big difference. The command to be fruitful and multiply means human communities from the start involve families, not merely individuals. Politics, then, will spring from and have concern for humans as they exist in community. We are naturally social beings, an insight that is as biblical as it is Aristotelian. Even pre-Fall, Adam would have made human laws to regulate these interactions. These laws would not have involved coercive restraint, but cultivation and education. Along similar lines, pre-Fall politics must concern itself with families. It must encourage and facilitate fruitfulness. It also must regulate the interaction between families so as to assure the proper ordering of family life.

The creation mandate continues that man should “subdue” the earth and “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Rule—we could even say politics does not arise as a punishment for the Fall. It originates as part of man’s rule over the earth and all that is in it. Calvin saw a small bit of God’s image in this mandate. Man will subdue the earth and the animals in accordance with certain rules for their cultivation. In other words, man will make and enforce laws. These laws would conform to those already established by  God  at creation. Adam must know. Then he must regulate according to that knowledge. Thus, the relationship between natural law and human law existed prior to the Fall, wherein the latter applies the former.

The Fall

The world and the humans inhabiting it do not stay perfect, of course. Genesis 3 recounts humans’ Fall, through Adam, into a state of sin and death. The Fall holds political importance both in how it happens and in what it means for humanity going forward. 

Regarding how, we must begin with the spoken law God gave to Adam and Eve. They might eat of any tree in the Garden of Eden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Much debate surrounds the exact nature of this tree, from what fruit it contained to what it meant to know good and evil by eating from it. But for our purposes we only need to see this law as a test of the political order established in the Garden. God ruled His creation through not only their human natures, but also a stated law. Adam and Eve must submit to this rule as part of their imaging of God (righteousness and holiness) that acknowledges God’s rightful kingship.

Next, we must turn to the temptation of Eve by the serpent. The serpent gives an interpretation of that law. In doing so, it introduces two factors. Firstly, the serpent introduces doubt (“Did God really say?”). Doubt undermines law by questioning either its existence or aspects of its content. Secondly, the serpent subtly shifts the political order in the Garden. Before, God clearly and unequivocally ruled. When the serpent asks, “Did God really say?” it brings in more than doubt; it invites Adam and Eve to question God’s rule. We see this when the serpent quickly moves beyond doubt to a defiant certainty. The serpent answers, “You will not surely die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The serpent rejects God’s law entirely. A law is backed by coercive force (thus not a mere suggestion) and seeks the good of the ruled. The serpent says that God’s punishment will not occur, denying its threatened coercion. It then denies the law’s goodness, thus questioning God’s own goodness. Instead, the serpent says that breaking the law will result in a different good—godlikeness. We see here, in the first temptation, a political temptation that will haunt many a regime. We desire to be gods. That desire results in tyranny and attendant atrocities, as we enact judgment without justice.

The existence of sin changes the role of government. It adds a coercive, executive power to the already existing legislative power. Before the Fall laws were organized and instructed and obedience would follow. Now, beyond legislating, government must restrain as well as punish. Law must now include a power to coerce, something only forewarned by God before, but not made actual until the Fall. For, because of sin, persons will not always follow the law merely because they know of its requirements. This governmental coercion then must act to restrain and to punish those unwilling to follow the law.

The Fall also introduced the impetus for the judicial power. In the modern separation of powers’ schema, this function adjudicates disputes about who broke the law. The judge determines the factual question of who committed what actions and the legal one of interpreting the law in relation to those facts. Persons in court can dispute both—what happened and what the law says about it.

In the Garden, we see God holding a trial of sorts against Adam and Eve. He first ascertains that His law was broken. God asks Adam why he and Eve hid from Him. Adam’s statement that he and Eve are naked exposes their eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. Interestingly, no one disputes the law’s meaning. Not after the Fall, at least. Instead, the trial simply assigns culpability:who bears responsibility for breaking the law? Here, we see blame-shifting between the man and the woman. Confronted by God, Adam blames Eve. Eve then points the finger at the serpent.

Thus, a judicial dispute exists about who holds responsibility for breaking the law. In the form of judicial power, politics must overcome disputes and apply the law as it rightly applies to the persons and the situation involved. God pronounces all three guilty, doling out distinct punishments to each. His rule continues despite rebellion, despite violation of the rule of law. Doing so also exemplifies political wisdom in how to rule. Applying the law to particular persons under particular circumstances requires a special kind of political skill. God gives an example of judgment showing that He knows the law, knows the circumstances in which it was broken, and finally is aware of the nature of who broke that law.

This shift in how politics operates post-Fall shows that politics is not inherently corrupting or evil. Through creation, God exercised political power as a good. He bestowed the use of political power on human beings as a good. We certainly should show vigilance to fight sin as it manifests in political communities. But we also must see in it an original, positive good, a Divine example and a human mandate that continues as an integral part of life together on earth. 

The Curses and the Mandate

God’s curses of the man and the woman correspond to the creation mandate. To the command for fruitfulness, God condemns women to painful childbirth. This pain portends pains that children already born will give their mothers. Moreover, government’s role in the family expands as does the potential for abusing that role. In ordering society, pre-Fall government would regulate the family to some degree. Introduce sin, and the necessary reasons for political intervention into the family increases. Sin opens the family to internal deceit and violence which the state has a responsibility to restrain and punish. Sin, too, introduces antagonism between state and hearth, with the state tempted to dominate the family and the family tempted to withdraw from the city. Sin creates dueling loyalties between patriotism and familial fidelity, one recognized and agonized over by the likes of Plato in the Republic.

God adds to the commands to subdue the earth and to exercise dominion: “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;  thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:17-19).  An important starting point for politics concerns the relationship humans hold to the world around them. Some political thinkers read this relationship as basically cooperative, such as Rousseau. Others see humanity’s experience of the world as inherently antagonistic. John Locke, again, represents this view.

Both views hold a partial truth. The earth originally did cooperate with humanity. It is true that labor was involved before the Fall in subduing the world, but the world willingly cooperated, as it were.. Now, the world groans against this labor (Rom 8:22). Enough of the original creation mandate remains that we can still eat of the ground’s produce. We do so, though, by struggle. “Thorns and thistles” shall choke our plants as they seek to grow, and cut our bodies as we try to harvest them. We will obtain bread but only “[b]y the sweat of your face.”

This curse opens humanity to a number of political experiences. We retain a responsibility to care for the earth. At the same time, we must encourage cultivation and demand work as part of belonging to the political community. We, as individuals and as a community, must strive now to preserve the world, and all the more,  to prosper in it. Along these lines, the curse on Adam introduces scarcity. Political actors now must account for regulating and distributing resources when not everyone can obtain all they need, much less all they want. Moreover, the Fall introduces deception. Adam and Eve already tried to deceive God by hiding from Him. Tempted by scarcity, aware of sin in others, they will think nothing of harming their neighbors. Because of this, laws must include the enforcement of contracts and of maintaining the faith between men by means of coercion, either threatened or enacted.

Finally, regarding the creation mandate, we must understand the political import of Genesis 3:15. There, God declares to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Many theologians refer to it as the protoevangelium, the first declaration of the Gospel. But it covers much more ground than that. Politics must never forget the enmity that exists between the offspring of the woman and of the serpent. Laws seek to control behavior and hope to contribute toward right thinking as well as right doing. Christians traditionally speak of three threats to our righteous thoughts and actions: the world, the flesh, and the devil. The flesh points out that humans possess an internal desire to break God’s laws and thus all human statutes made in their image. The world as temptation recognizes that we live in community. That community involves other persons themselves subject to their flesh. Psalm 12:8 speaks of those who not only do evil but approve of others doing so, saying “vileness is exalted among the children of men” (we see a similar point expressed by Paul in Romans 1:32). Finally, we have the devil, who took the form of the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.

Laws must maintain an awareness of these threats. It must seek to thwart them. This involves the wisdom to know not just the original good but how temptation works its way into action. It means curbing these actions and hopefully making some progress toward habituating citizens toward the good. We must say “some progress” because we must admit the limitations of any human endeavors at realizing the good. Only God can change the heart to perfectly love justice and to act on the basis of it. He does so primarily by means of the Word read, preached, and the sacraments administered. Nonetheless, God has ordained politics as a means of restraining evil as well as of teaching justice and virtue. We must not depend solely on politics, but we must not neglect its necessity and usefulness either. 

Conclusion

We see in the opening chapters of Genesis a wealth of material related to political theology. We witness a God whose rule includes the act of creation. We see the importance of creative words as introducing the rule of law. We encounter a creation mandate that reveals man to be a rational, fruitful, working being created to rule over the world. Finally, we observe the Fall into sin and death requiring new laws to respond appropriately to  the onset of evil, as well as the new (and necessary) tool of coercion to offset humanity’s depraved recalcitrance.

This political theology is far from exhausting Scripture’s political teaching. Instead, it helpfully sets the stage for the entry of human rule, the founding of cities, the establishment of human kingships and the ways kingdoms will react to the reality of creation and fall. And, tucked away deep within Genesis 3:15, we have a promise. God rules now. He continues to bring history to the final consummation of that rule. Christ has crushed the head of the serpent. And He shall come again, to reign forever.

*Image Credit: Pexels

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Adam Carrington

Adam Carrington Adam Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College, where he has taught since 2014. He is a graduate of Baylor University and Ashland University. He has written for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, Washington Examiner, and Public Discourse.