Christianity and Politics III: The Goodness and Limits of Politics
“Indeed, all that wise men ever aim at is to keep things from coming to the worst. Those who expect perfect reformations, either deceive or are deceived miserably.” ~Edmund Burke
Man was made to order and rule over the world that God made. Although there is a unique (and theologically important) sense in which this was true of Adam, it is inherent in the image of God and continues to be the case even after the Fall.
Nonetheless, Adam’s fall into sin has radically changed everything. Although the vocation remains (order and rule), it can no longer be carried out in the same way as would have been the case had Adam not sinned. What, then, has the Fall done?
A classic principle of Christian theology, one that has been invoked often with regard to Christian political action, is this: grace does not destroy but restores nature. This means that certain aspects of how God made the world do not cease to be operative simply because sin has twisted and deformed those institutions. This would include things like the goodness of marriage and childbearing, as well as the goodness of labor and work. With regard to political order it means that although the Fall has created difficulties with regard to the human vocation of ordering and ruling the world, it has not destroyed the possibility of doing so. Governance is not—even in light of the Fall—a sub-Christian concern, or contrary to human virtue. Man still maintains the capability and responsibility to order and rule the world.
Sin, however, has made this much more difficult. There is now an enmity between those who belong to Satan and those who belong to God (Gen 3:15). This enmity will manifest itself in the world until the coming of Christ when he will return and put every enemy under his feet (1 Cor 15:24–25). The entire created order, political rule included, has been “subjected to futility” and exists in a state of “bondage to corruption” (Rom 8:20–21). Fallen mankind “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21). “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom 1:22–23). Sin has infected everything, the ability to rule well, even the ability to think properly about ruling well.
Had Adam not sinned, faithfully ordering and ruling the world as he was meant to do would not only have been possible, it would have been a joy. With the entrance of sin into the world, the vocation remains, though twisted and distorted by the Fall. Order must now overcome disorder, rule must include governance, but also punishment, and so on.
This does not mean that political order and rule is worthless, nor that much good cannot be done through it, but it does mean that there should be a Christian “eschatological reserve” wherein we recognize that the good we can do this side of Christ’s return is limited. Our political philosophizing must reflect these limitations.
Put simply and succinctly, Christian political action in a fallen world can be defined according to a simple maxim (to be expanded in subsequent articles): Do the good you can, where you are.1
The antithesis between the divine and satanic seeds will not be overcome in this age; the fullness of the kingdom of God will not be manifest until the last day. But God has revealed, both in his word, and in the various facets of the created order, what man’s vocation in the world is, and how that vocation should be carried out. That vocation includes ordering and ruling over the world and its people, in the unique tribes, tongues, and nations that God has established. Nothing about the Fall negates this vocation and responsibility.
While some Christians reject political power as too tainted by the Fall, there is also a temptation for Christians to reject the kind of limited and circumspect approach to politics I’ve begun outlining in this article. This temptation can take many forms, from utopianism to despair and defeatism regarding our present political condition. The latter can even be combined—as strange as it might seem—with hope in some form of nearly miraculous intervention that will usher in a sudden transformation of a given political order. In this way of thinking doing the limited good you can, where you are, just props up a tottering, evil regime. Better to let it all burn and hope an unexpected deliverer will arise to set things right.2
Don’t get me wrong. I’m under no illusions about how bad things are in our society today. Anyone who can’t see this has his head in the sand. But politics falling far short of the ideal is the norm in human history; it is the norm while living in a fallen world. And this is true even though it is sometimes the case that swift and significant change for the better is actually possible. It may very well be the case that a huge swathe of the US population, for example, only submits to LGBTQ ideology and other woke assaults because they believe they will suffer too much if they oppose them. If it becomes clear (Bud Light, Target, etc.) that such ideological redoubts are not as invulnerable as they once seemed the tide could turn against them very quickly. There are plenty of examples of this in history, though sudden, seismic transformations of a political order can’t be the basis for action now, since they can’t be predicted.
A better framing is this: politics in a fallen world must be realistic even as it remains aspirational. This is not at all to rule out suitably bold, daring, even aggressive political action, especially as carried out by lesser magistrates who wield genuine political power, but Christians should not allow either despair or utopian dreams to blind them to the genuine, though limited, good they can do in the places God has placed them.
In the political realm, Christians should not be embarrassed by the word “pragmatic.” Overarching, high-level, theories of governance have value, but much concrete good can be done without taking the discussion to those levels. A solid notion of basic justice combined with an attempt to see it implemented can, with God’s blessing, do much good in the world.
A political approach that accepts the limitations of life in a fallen world will also lead us not to despair when things inevitably fall short of the ideal. We simply do the best we can where we are, and leave the results in God’s hands: “The outcome does not concern man when his duty has been made clear to him.”3 This is how things have always been and this is how things will always be in this age.
Just as there are some who set their political hopes—if they have any—on a miraculous intervention in the near future, there are others who believe cultural and political victories are impossible in the short term. This too is false. Some would lump dispensationalists and amillennialists into this category.4 I can’t speak in as much detail for dispensationalists (I’m an amillennialist myself), but there is certainly not anything in amillennial teaching that would lead to the conclusion that Christians cannot have a positive impact on their nation, on its laws, customs, and institutions. Both are united, however, in recognizing that such impact will always be limited; they both maintain an eschatological reserve with regard to what is possible in this age. And despite the seeming contradiction in, for example, John MacArthur’s claim that “we don’t win down here, we lose!” on the whole dispensationalists are remarkably politically engaged in America. In fact, any political change for the better in America probably depends on the efforts of dispensationalists, who are by far the largest group of evangelical Christians in America.5
I would contend that eschatology should not be the defining doctrine for political and cultural engagement, since dispensationalists, amillennialists, and postmillennialists all (in fact, if not theory) allow that Christians have a responsibility to pursue justice and virtue in this world, in this age, even with regard to things that rise above the level of individual piety. Postmillennialists may bristle more than others at the thought of leaving things at the basic level I’ve outlined, though if this approach could be agreed upon, much good could be done in common cause among all three groups.
In sum, a vigorous—yet realistic—Christian politics is something that Christians in the past, most of whom have fallen somewhere near a form of Augustinian amillennialism, have agreed on, and it has served as a solid and stable basis for pursuing justice and good governance in one’s nation.
The twentieth-century (amillennial) Dutch Protestant theologian Herman Bavinck was exactly right when he wrote that
A concern for earthly interests is in itself . . . in such little conflict with Christian morality that it can in fact be said to be based and founded on the creation of man according to God’s image. Man was and in a certain sense still is the image bearer of God, and he is therefore called to subdue the earth and to have dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, and all the animals that creep upon the earth (Gen. 1:26–28 and Psalm 8).6
But this “concern for earthly interests” must remain within proper bounds. John Calvin put it well:
He who knows to distinguish between the body and the soul, between the present fleeting life and that which is future and eternal, will have no difficulty in understanding that the spiritual kingdom of Christ and civil government are things very widely separated. . . . Still the distinction does not go so far as to justify us in supposing that the whole scheme of civil government is a matter of pollution, with which Christian men have nothing to do. Fanatics, indeed, delighting in unbridled license, insist and vociferate that, after we are dead by Christ to the elements of this world, and being translated into the kingdom of God sit among the celestials, it is unworthy of us, and far beneath our dignity, to be occupied with those profane and impure cares which relate to matters alien from a Christian man.7
A Christian politics of “eschatological reserve,” one that “knows to distinguish . . . between the present fleeting life and that which is future and eternal” is not defeatist and unconcerned with earthly things like politics. Pursuing faithful political order and rule, using the power of the state to do good, as has been recognized by Christians throughout the ages, is a good and noble vocation. But Christian political action is also not presumptuous. It is realistic about what can be accomplished in this fallen, evil age, an age in which God has not promised ultimate victory, even as it is optimistic because it entrusts itself to a God who in his infinite wisdom sovereignly rules human history.
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