The “Christian Prince” in The Case for Christian Nationalism
In the Monumenta Ecclesiastica, compiled in the time of Henry I (1068-1135), the “heavenly king” (i.e., Christ Jesus) is defined. He is the “Ruler and Maker of all creatures” who surveys all and is due all honor and glory. Thereafter, “earthly king,” a “Christian king,” is defined according to his duties flowing from the status and power of the heavenly king. It is the king’s duty within a Christian nation to be
[T]he people’s comfort, and a righteous shepherd over a Christian flock. And it is his duty, with all his power, to upraise Christianity, and everywhere further and protect God’s church; and establish peace among, and reconcile all Christian people […] because he shall thereby chiefly prosper himself, and his subjects […] He shall evil-doing men vigorously chastise with secular punishment, and he shall robbers, and plunderers, and public spoilers, hate and suppress, and all God’s foes sternly withstand.
The text continues,
Lo! Through what shall peace and support come to God’s servants and to God’s poor, save through Christ, and through a Christian king? Through the king’s wisdom, the people become happy well-conditioned, and victorious, and therefore shall a wise king magnify and honor Christianity and kingship and shall ever hinder and abhor heathenism. He shall very diligently listen to book-precepts, and zealously hold God’s commandments.1
How many western Christians, much less American Protestants, would agree with that job description of the civil ruler today? No wonder the chapter on “The Christian Prince” in Stephen Wolfe’s new bestseller, The Case for Christian Nationalism, has caused many to shudder. Considering the religious role of the “Christian prince,” Wolfe calls him a “vicar of God” charged with ordering the nation to the “national good” and provocatively calls for “theocratic Caesarism.”2 Is this some feudalistic fantasy or, as Wolfe claims in his introduction, drawn from the Reformed Protestant tradition?
Before answering this question, we must consider two of Wolfe’s other claims in light of the same tradition: whether government is “natural,” as he claims, and the relative integrity of post-lapsarian man. But first, an excursus on the “Reformed tradition.”
Resourcing or Distorting?
From the get-go, Wolfe informs his readers that he will not engage in independent exegesis to prove his claims, but rather rely on the “Reformed tradition” specifically, and the western Christian tradition generally, and take said tradition as a given—as accessible and definable.3 In other words, Wolfe relies on more capable, time-tested exegetes, the use of scripture undergirding doctrine found in Protestant texts from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.
Wolfe’s project is evidently not pure resourcement. We could call it resourcement lite. Although he endeavors to draw Protestants back to earlier conceptions of man, society, and government, he is not occupied with parsing the tradition and its sources. His argument is normative. Wolfe is a pugilist, not a tweed, but his work is tweedy in its prolegomena.4 And yet, he leans on his Reformed (and Presbyterian) tradition for support.
Nevertheless, the most common intramural (intra-Reformed) critique of Wolfe’s book attacks this methodological choice. Though CFCN cannot be properly analyzed as a pure ad fontes effort, Wolfe’s preliminary and methodological assumptions can be assessed for their consistency with the sources and the tradition he asserts insofar as he depends upon their veracity.
Some reviewers, like Kevin DeYoung, are happy to cede that Wolfe has accurately and appropriately returned to the sources, if for his own distinct purposes.5 Others, however, have called this maneuver and its validity into question, suggesting that CFCN does not appropriate and employ the tradition rightly.6 That is, that the tradition is incapable of definition and, therefore, focused, authoritative use is elusive; and that Wolfe’s source material is selectively chosen and selectively read. This raises a legitimate question. If the entire basis for Wolfe’s authoritative claims is infinitely averse to definition, or if Wolfe has misused source material via improper selectivity (or misreading) for incongruent ends, then the entire project is bunk.
On the one hand, Wolfe does not suggest that the Reformed tradition is monolithic or static. Rather, he simply characterizes the lion’s share of his sources. Does anyone dispute that Calvin, Turretin, or Mastricht are Reformed? On the other hand, delineating the Reformed tradition for these purposes is not as hard as some insist. To invoke the Reformed tradition is to simultaneously invoke Reformed orthodoxy. The best way to stabilize this inquiry is to define Reformed orthodoxy as Willem Van Asselt did. That is to “refer to that stream within orthodoxy connected to the Reformed confessions.” When assessing a particular theologian, it needn’t be proven that he is representative of the consensus view, but only that a “theologian himself was convinced that his views were in line with Reformed confessions.”7
Of course, orthodoxy signals diversity and catholicity, as well as development. Wolfe evidently roots himself in early modern sources, mostly from the period of High Orthodoxy (1620-1700), that of confessionalization and systematization, though Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) make frequent appearances (as they did in early modern Protestant sources). Later Reformed theologians like Charles Hodge (1797-1878) and Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) are less frequently cited.
Relying on the Reformed tradition is inevitably selective in terms of source material employed. So too does such reliance risk appeal to sources more influential today than they were at the time of their construction. For example, no one reads Heinrich Bullinger’s (1504-1575) Decades today; everyone reads John Calvin’s (1509-1564) Institutes. The two works differ in format and purpose, but if you were an Oxbridge student in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, the Decades were required weekly reading by order of the archbishop, and the Institutes were not—Wolfe uses both. To properly do Reformed resourcement in a normative way does not require exhaustive demonstration of agreement between theologians but merely that loose confessional bounds have not been exceeded. After that, choose your fighter, as they say. There’s nothing heterodox about siding with Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603) over Richard Hooker (1554-1600) or alternatively taking up the more moderate position of later, minority report figures like Richard Baxter (1615-1691) on similar questions.
In the end, if Martin Bucer (1491-1551), Franciscus Junius (1545-1602), and a Westminster Divine are all on your side, you’re probably good to go. Bonus points for citing Bartholomäus Keckermann (1572-1609), Johannes Althusius (1563-1638), or Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638), especially if you provide original translations of their Latin, as Wolfe does.
But, perhaps, Wolfe misemploys the impressive list of sources he has amassed, and maybe that is why his advocacy for such allegedly “authoritarian” proposals like a “Christian prince” seems so foreign. Not so, I’m afraid. Wolfe’s conclusions are conventional, within the intellectual milieu from which his sources are derived, and his use of them is appropriate, however uncomfortable the modern reader may find them.
Natural or Contingent?
Wolfe reasons that since man is by nature sociable and since society requires “an ordering agent, the power of that ordering agent must be natural as well.”8 It follows, then, that civil power is “part of the created order” and not a consequence of the fall.9 In this sense, then, government is natural.
This is important because if government is not natural, in some sense, Wolfe’s overarching thesis is damaged given that his definition of nation is dependent on the extent to which they are bound by law and express their collective will through the same as a constituting act. And yet, Wolfe situates the Christian prince as the one who animates the nation via execution of law. If government is unnatural, then so too is such a conception of civil rule (and renewal).10
For this claim Wolfe relies chiefly on Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) and Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). Note that Rutherford himself quoted Suarez on these very points. Hence the use of Suarez by Wolfe indicates no lapse into distinctly Roman Catholic formulations. Brian Mattson seized on this point in his review of CFCN suggesting that Wolfe misread and misapplied Rutherford on this point, and that the latter actually taught that whilst civil society is natural, “magistracy,” which Mattson equates with “the state,” is not.
Of course, it is more complicated than that. Rutherford indeed says that “power of government by magistracy” is not a “law of pure nature” insofar as all men are “born equally free,” a point Wolfe affirms. Rutherford is interested in combating iure divino theories of monarchy and prelacy. Hence, he denies in Lex Rex (Q III.) that any particular form of government is divinely ordained, though government power be directly from God and its particular form mediately so (by conduits of circumstance and people). This too Wolfe affirms.11 In this way, it follows from the sociableness of man, by a “secondary” law of nature—i.e., good and necessary application of general precepts of natural law—that man must be governed in some way, though not by any particular form as such. Prudence must judge the latter inquiry; a form of government must merely be agreeable to the light of nature to be valid. On this, Wolfe is following Rutherford, who, in turn, was following Bellarmine and other Jesuits in eclectic fashion.
Consider Rutherford’s reasoning:
It is not in men’s free will that they have government or no government, because it is not in their free will to obey or not to obey the acts of the court of nature, which is God’s court; and this court enacteth that societies suffer not mankind to perish [i.e., self-preservation], which must necessarily follow if they appoint no government.12
Government is not optional or merely contingent, though, again, the form of government is mediated by the “wills and liberty of people.”
In Rutherford’s day, it wasn’t just Presbyterians thinking thus. Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699), an Episcopalian and onetime interlocutor of John Owen (1616-1683), thought similarly about church polity, viz., as long as a particular form is well-fitted to the proper ends of the church then it is lawful. For Stillingfleet, in both church and state, the power of the thing itself was not contingent, though specific manifestation was.13 As Rutherford put it “we may call the forms of magistrates a human ordinance”—monarchy was not required by divine sanction—but not government qua government. Following Johannes Piscator (1546-1625), Rutherford parses 1 Peter 2:13 as indicating not that man creates government (i.e., “efficient cause”) but because men occupy government as ministers of God. Rutherford was in good company, and so is Wolfe.
But did this opinion endure beyond the seventeenth century? Well, Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823-1886) affirmed that no particular “form or order” of government is divine. Rather, God has “laid the general foundation both for the duty and necessity of government in the consciences and in the social natures of all men, and in the circumstances of all communities.” The natural instinct, urge, or need of government is implanted in man, in his conscience and sociable nature. Accordingly, Hodge has no problem saying that “God as Creator” demonstrates all of this through the light of nature, viz., that he “established” (albeit not according to form) “civil government among men from the beginning, and among all peoples and nations, of all ages and generations.”14
Conversely, did such an opinion predate the Reformation? In his De Regno, Thomas Aquinas held that
the light of reason is placed by nature in every man, to guide him in his acts towards his end. Wherefore, if man were intended to live alone, as many animals do, he would require no other guide to his end. Each man would be a king unto himself, under God, the highest King, inasmuch as he would direct himself in his acts by the light of reason given him from on high. Yet it is natural for man, more than for any other animal, to be a social and political animal, to live in a group… If, then, it is natural for man to live in the society of many, it is necessary that there exist among men some means by which the group may be governed… in all things that are ordained towards one end, one thing is found to rule the rest.15
Aquinas then considers the mode or form of government on the basis of “expediency” and experience. Sound familiar? Wolfe’s consideration of that naturalness of government checks both the “Reformed” and “conventional” boxes. If critics question such arguments because scripture is too lightly cited then they might find more Biblicist comfort in Robert Filmer’s (1588-1653) Patriarcha or Thomas Hobbes’ (1588-1679) Leviathan, though they will be less comforted by their opinions.16
Wolfe writes early on that “Man retrains his earthly gifts, those that lead him to the fundamental things of earthly life,” including “original instincts,” though he has lost “heavenly orientation,” which “effects his whole being.”17 Does this afford too much to fallen man? Many readers will think so.
But even nineteenth century Protestants like Charles Hodge (Presbyterian) and James Boyce (Baptist) agreed that fallen man retains his ability, as iustitia civilis, as to external things. Rather, inability referred to things of the spirit. He can still be “kind and just, and fulfil his social duties in a manner to secure the approbation of his fellow-men.”18 Civil righteousness, as it used to be called, is still in play despite the noetic effects of sin. What’s more, the noetic effect pertains to the disorder of the intellectual faculties such that man’s will does not follow the last and proper judgment of the intellect, and further that the intellect is somewhat darkened. That same effect does not, however, adjust the nature of man qua man insofar as his distinct, constituting faculties are maintained, along with his created instincts and needs, viz., social interaction, self-preservation, etc.
Wolfe claims no more than this.19 Though man is so riddled with sin and its compounding effects that he can do no theological or spiritual good apart from grace, he has not been metaphysically altered, such that his constituting faculties and purposes remain intact—damaged but intact. Civil righteousness (i.e., non-salvific), then, is still attainable, and, indeed, necessary for the longevity of human life. This is all conventional stuff, and Wolfe cites his own sources for it, Calvin, Turretin, Althusius, Samuel Willard (1640-1707), and so on. Regarding the noetic effects of sin, perhaps, Wolfe has too much confidence in natural theology, but as Wallace Marshall has expertly shown, the Puritans were pretty confident in the same.20 Indeed, as I’ve written elsewhere, the older view was that natural truths were preparatory for the Gospel, not the other way around.21
To return to where we started, most American Protestants today will be shocked by traditional discussions of the religious role of the Christian magistrate, in part, because it conflicts with decidedly recent neo-Calvinist suppositions about principled pluralism or secularized Christianity. Readers schooled in Kuyper will have difficulty with Wolfe’s recitation—delivered with his own flare, of course—of magisterial and early modern Protestant convictions on this front. But this is nothing more than a recovery of a post-Reformation Constantinian vision of socio-political order.
In his chapter on civil law,22 Wolfe follows Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) in declaring the magistrate lex animate, the living law, for law inanimate is a “dumb magistrate.”23 Wolfe could have cited Peter Martyr Vermgili’s (1499-1562) Loci communes, and many others, for the same proposition.24 This will, of course, bother libertarians and self-described constitutionalists, especially as Wolfe connects the magistrate’s enlivening of the law via authority and personality to the ideal Christian prince, the “chief agent [or efficient cause] of Christian nationalism.”25 It is a “measured and theocratic Caesarism” that Wolfe envisions.26
Of course, defining the ruler as the efficient cause of order (i.e., law) is entirely classical, stretching back to Thomas Aquinas’ definition of law. Franciscus Junius (1545-1602) says this explicitly.27 None but he who has care for the community can enact law and animate or enforce law, and, thereby, enliven the will of the whole through law. Again, this is unobjectionable in the tradition.
Caesarism is a recent term of art on the “new right.” It is a hypothetical, transitional model of governance designed to free us from our current malaise and petty conflict unto renewal. Charles Haywood, Michael Anton, and Curtis Yarvin have all theorized Caesarism in diverse ways. By invoking Caesarism, Wolfe is evidently intending to be provocative, but the question is whether said invocation inordinately distances him from the Reformed tradition he takes for granted at the outset and upon which he predicates his approach.
The elevation of the Christian magistrate as a reforming force was a hallmark of the sixteenth and seventeenth Protestant political thought such that anachronistically labeling the Reformed ideal as “theocratic Caesarism” is not incongruent. In nearly everyone from Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563) to Richard Baxter (1615-1691),28 we see a narrative of the inordinate subjugation of magistrates and the usurpation of their authority by late medieval Popes. In his Difference Between the Power of Magistrates and Church-Pastors, Baxter blames Gregory VII and Innocence III for these innovations, subsequently defended by Bellarmine.29Baxter reiterates the same narrative in his long preface to Catholick Theologie. Vermigli’s nemesis was Boniface VIII, for it was he that reformulated the old Gelasian formula (Duo Sunt) to locate both swords originally in the church such that magistral power came only mediately from God. The implication was that such mediated temporal power could be directed and rescinded at will by the spiritual sword.30
As Robert Walton recounts in his study of Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), functionally, until the eleventh century, a “royal theocracy” pervaded western Europe wherein (mainly German) emperors asserted a right of intervention into spiritual matters.31Following the squabbles of the ninth century (especially with the Franks),32 Gregory VII and his successors introduced a countervailing clericalism that flipped the balance the other way toward papal supremacy until the conciliarist efforts of the fifteenth century, which were later cited by people like Rutherford. Marsilius of Padua (1270-1342) and William of Occam (1285-1347), as well as so-called proto-reformers like John Wycliffe (1328-1384), reasserted a proper delineation of authority, a return to the older distribution of labor according to juridical competency without sacrificing the unifying principle of the corupus christianum. (Marsilius may have even overcorrected to the extent that his immoderate, complicated proposal completely subjugated the clergy,33 whereas Occam and Wycliffe, and then Zwingli, were more balanced).34
In any case, by the time of the Reformation, the balance of power was reset, so to speak, as Protestants theorized the reassertion of monarchical duties unto religion. It was not just in England that reform was dependent on princes. The emphasis on temporal authorities as reforming agents during the Reformation is discernible in Luther’s To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, but only increased as reform progressed. Lamented constantly was the erosion of “the Power and Rights of Princes,”35 and encouraged everywhere was the role of magistrates in purifying the church and encouraging true religion over and against papal excesses and heresies. Old Testament reformer kings like Josiah and Hezekiah were constantly held out as kingly models, as were Roman emperors like Constantine and Theodosius.
To this end, Musculus spoke of Christian magistrates in laudatory terms, calling for excellent or great men to preside over Christian people as a father would children. Certainly, the temporal sword was tasked with keeping civic peace, but true religion was the source of peace and order, as the Lutheran Johannes Brenz (1499-1570) said.36 Consequently, the Christian prince, the living law, was tasked with guaranteeing the doctrinal and moral integrity of the national church—and the ceiling was increasingly national.
The magistrate was not just a member of the church, but its foremost member. Even if he could not promulgate doctrine as such, he could punish that which was contrary to church teaching, call synods to neutralize intra-church conflict, and, in extreme situations, restore the church to its last pristine point, as John Norton (1606-1663) and others proffered. The king was Defensor Fidei, after all. Wolfe delineates these duties well, affirming along the way a classical two kingdoms view of church and state. A learned critique of Wolfe would question him not on his theory of the Christian magistrate, but whether his criticism of the Erastian position is fair even as he cites Erastians for his own purposes, but that discussion is not going to get most people out of bed in the morning.37 Neither would a debate on whether political theory should begin with anthropology or a more general principle of cosmic unity.38
I could go on, but given the above, it is not so strange, then, for Wolfe to call for a “great Christian prince” to enact renewal, however “slim” that prospect might be.39 A few hundred years ago this was all standard fare. Chronological snobbery may explain the rest.
The lead endorsement on The Case for Christian Nationalism calls it “relentlessly innovative.” There’s a distinct sense in which this is true, especially for the present moment. There are chapters not covered in this review to which that endorsement would more readily apply. For what has been covered here, however, the book is conventional according to the tradition upon which Wolfe self-professedly depends, which is not to cast the presentation as boring. Old ideas appear fresh and provocative to those plagued with historical amnesia. For this—recovering and repackaging bygone political-theological categories and formulations—Protestants have Stephen Wolfe to thank. Maybe it’s all cosplay, as many believe (or hope), but without an ideal, however flawed, upon what can we build? Someone had to be the first to attempt to sketch such an ideal. Again, for this alone, Wolfe’s book is an achievement. While we’re (perhaps, futilely) waiting for Charlemagne,40 we should at least try to think about what he would look like.
Ancient Law and Institutes of England: Comprising Laws Enacted Under the Anglo-Saxon Kings from Aethelbriht to Cnut, vol. 2, ed. Benjamin Thorpe (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 305-307. Thorpe notes that the Institutes of Polity, Civil and Ecclesiastical, from which the above pericope is taken was originally the work of Theodore of Tarsus (602-690), once Archbishop of Canterbury (668-690). A note therein reads:
“It is very rightly the duty of a Christian king to be in the place of a father to a Christian nation, and in watch and in ward Christ’s vicegerent, so as he is accounted. And it is also his duty, with all his mind, to love Christianity, and shun heathenism, and everywhere to honor and protect God’s church, and to establish peace among, and reconciles all Christian people, with just law.”
“Seven things are befitting a righteous king: first, that he have very great awe of God, and secondly, that he ever love righteousness, and thirdly, that he be humble before God, and fourthly, that he be rigid towards evil, and fifthly, that he comfort and feed God’s poor, and sixthly, that he further and protect God’s church, and seventhly, that, towards friends and towards strangers, he be guided alike to just judgment.”
- Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow: Canon Press, 2022), 277, 290, 31. Hereinafter, CFCN. ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 16. ↩
- John Ehrett, “A Typology of Conservative Protestants in an Anxious Age,” Patheos (Nov. 29, 2022), https://www.patheos.com/blogs/betweentwokingdoms/2022/11/a-typology-of-conservative-protestants-in-an-anxious-age/. ↩
- DeYoung, “The Rise of Right-Wing Wokeism,” The Gospel Coalition (Nov. 28, 2022), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/christian-nationalism-wolfe/. ↩
- Brian Mattson, “A Children’s Crusade,” The Square Inch (Nov. 15, 2022), https://brianmattson.substack.com/p/a-childrens-crusade. ↩
- Van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 6. ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 278. ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 279. ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 278. ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 282-283. ↩
- Rutherford, Lex Rex (London, 1644), (Edinburgh: Ogle, Oliver, & Boyd, 1843), 5. ↩
- Calvin too expressed some theoretical reciprocity between church and state in this way. See Harro Hopfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge University Press, 1982), 155. And see WCF 1.6. ↩
- Hodge, The Confession of Faith: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine Expounding The Westminster Confession (London: Banner of Truth, 1958), 294 (emphasis added). See also Rutherford, Lex Rex, 1 (“What is warranted by the direction of nature’s light is warranted by the law of nature, and consequently by a divine law; for who can deny the law of nature to be a divine law?”); Vermigli, Common places, 226-227. ↩
- Wolfe cites a similar section from De Regno early in the book. The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow: Canon Press, 2022), 71. ↩
- Important as well, for present debates, is Wolfe’s discussion of “augmentation” (not “modification”) of institutions post-fall. See Wolfe, CFCN, 88-91. ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 22. ↩
- Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 245 (citing Hodge, Systematic Theology, II, 263-264). ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 84-88. ↩
- Marshall, Puritanism and Natural Theology (Eugene: Pickwick, 2016). ↩
- Timon Cline, “Law’s Preparation,” Modern Reformation (Feb. 28, 2022), https://modernreformation.org/resource-library/web-exclusive-articles/laws-preparation/. ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 241-274 ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 252. ↩
- Vermigli, The common places… (London, 1597), 226 (“And certainely the lawe is a dumb Magistrate: and againe, the Magistrate, is a liuing and speaking law.”). Heinrich Bullinger, Decades, II.7. ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 275-276 ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 277. ↩
- Junius, Mosaic Polity, 40. ↩
- Musculus, Common Places of Christian Religion, 546ff. ↩
- Baxter, Difference, 12-13. George Gillespie also pegged Innocent III’s “two lights” formulation as the source of late medieval confusion. Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (London, 1646). See also Gillespie’s CXI propositions concerning the ministerie and government of the Church(1647). ↩
- Vermigli, Common places, 230ff. ↩
- Walton, Zwingli’s Theocracy (University of Toronto Press, 1967), 20-21. ↩
- See generally Karl Frederick Morrison, The Two Kingdoms: Ecclesiology in Carolingian Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 1964) (setting up a dichotomy between “royal monism” and clerical dualism). ↩
- See Bettina Koch, “Marsilius of Padua on Church and State,” in A Companion to Marsilius of Padua, eds. Gerson Moreno-Riano & Cary Nederman (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 139-180. ↩
- And Zwingli was heavily influenced by Philip Melanchthon. Walton, Zwingli, 24-25. ↩
- Baxter, Difference, 12. ↩
- James M. Estes, Christian Magistrate and Territorial Church: Johannes Brenz and the German Reformation (Toronto: Center for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2007), 69-96. ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 300 n 48. ↩
- See generally Otto Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Age (Cambridge University Press, 1958), 9-21. ↩
- Wolfe, CFCN, 320. ↩
- Matthew Peterson, “Waiting for Charlemagne,” American Mind (May 6, 2020), https://americanmind.org/features/waiting-for-charlemagne/. ↩