Lessons in discipling a nation and her people
On a late spring day in 1798, two ministers stepped behind pulpits to deliver important messages to their congregations. Both were Presbyterians and in Philadelphia, a city of importance for both the nation (it was the capital city at the time) and their new denomination (the PCUSA). Rev. Ashbel Green was at his home church, historic Second Presbyterian. In 1789, it hosted the PCUSA’s very first General Assembly. Just blocks away, Samuel Blair was addressing those gathered at First Presbyterian, an older congregation pastored by the eminent Rev. John Ewing who was near the end of his ministry.
The occasion for this midweek service was a solemn one: a national day of “fasting, humiliation, and prayer.” The young republic was facing its first major international crisis.
Seven years earlier, the newly formed French Republic declared war against Great Britain. When President George Washington announced an official position of neutrality in the conflict while also sanctioning the Jay Treaty with Britain, many in France’s revolutionary government saw it as a betrayal by their one-time ally. Frustrated by America’s noninterference, French privateers began raiding American merchant ships who were trading with the enemy. When America stopped paying its war debts in response, the two nations moved toward the brink of war.
International pressure produced an ominous mood in the country, and Adams called on America’s spiritual capital for aid. Far from seeing it as an inappropriate syncretism of church and state, these men believed encouraging their congregations to greater piety was both a religious and civil duty. Indeed, both Green and Blair would serve as Chaplains to the House of Representatives, demonstrating their commitment to a harmonious relationship between the eternal and temporal spheres for mutual benefit.
France, by their estimation, had violated this divinely appointed order by rejecting God and embracing “infidel reason” (Green, 46). America, by contrast, had so far resisted the atheistic impulse, holding fast to Nature and Nature’s God from its founding.
These addresses are worth studying for many reasons. Their comparisons of the French and American revolutions are fascinating, but my intentions are more pastoral and, I hope, relevant: the remarks by these ordinary pastors, and the ease they felt expressing them behind the pulpit no less, reveals a serious deficiency with the present state of political theology in our churches. The problem is twofold.
The first part relates to biblical interpretation and application. For sermons addressing national concerns, Blair and Green both chose passages from the Old Testament: Isaiah 1:5 and 2 Chronicles 15:2 respectively. The reason why Blair and Green picked these texts and the point they intended to make is straightforward: just as God dealt with Israel, blessing or cursing her for the people’s attention to the law, so too would God deal with America.
Sirens immediately begin to ring in our modern ears at such a proposition. That ministers would try and apply lessons from Old Testament Israel to the American republic is a hermeneutical Rubicon no self-respecting preacher would dare cross today. Israel occupied a special place in God’s redemptive plan. America does not. Any comparison between the two is not only flawed but dangerous. Or so we’re told.
But invoking a comparison between Israel and America did not mean these ministers were ignorant of other significant differences. Israel was a “theocracy” while America is not, admitted Green (11). Israel’s polity flowed from the institution of “a complicated ritual of ceremonial observances and temporary regulations,” he explains, which reinforced God’s position not only as the common “supreme governor of the world” but also as their unique “civil chief” (11). In this way, Israel was manifestly different from her peers then and now. Moreover, the salvific purpose of the covenant-nation of Israel presently continues in the international covenant-people of the church–a key theme of the biblical canon not lost on Green or Blair.
But the Israel of the Bible was also one nation among many, all of which appear to be held by a common and divinely ordained standard to obey the moral law. This is Green’s main argument, which he proves by pointing to both sacred and secular history. “What was the cause of the destruction of the Canaanite (sic) nations?” he asks. After all, they did not have the “special revelation” afforded to Israel. Yet, God destroyed them because they violated “those great principles of religion and morality which the light of nature taught” (25).
Green also looks to Rome as proof of God’s normative relationship to nations. Rome experienced many years of “political prosperity” because of their religion and piety, he says (27). Yes, their “religion was absurd and their morals comparatively impure, but “the degree of rectitude and purity which they professed was their safety” (27). The Romans prospered in accordance with their “relative knowledge of moral and religious truth,” argues Green, and suffered God’s “distributive justice” when they turned from it (14).
Green’s point echoes Romans 1:18-20 and 2:14-15: passages that clearly show that God has written his natural law on every human heart. Since “of individuals, nations are composed,” they too must obey that divine law according to their relative knowledge of it (9). So where does that leave America?
The Canaanites and the Roman Republic “were never under obligation to conform to the same standard which we are bound to regard,” Green says (15). Even Ancient Israel did not receive the “new accession of light” who now shines forth in the world. Though the moral law has not changed, it has been so clearly manifested throughout the nations by the public witness of Christ and the apostles that it has “rendered them, in a degree, responsible for conformity to it” (30). America’s duty–and that of every present nation–is to comply with the standard of God’s will as now revealed in Jesus Christ; to be “a Christian nation,” says Green without the slightest embarrassment (15).
“To Christianity, in its genuine spirit, we have certainly been indebted for those civil institutions and those excellent dispositions and habits, which have rendered our country the envy of the world,” he says (33). None of these blessings are possible apart from America’s commitment to true religion.
While Green carries most of the theological lifting, Blair ably presents us with the pastoral application. Presently, America is “as reprehensible in the eye of the moral law, religion, and our God, as we have ever been” (12). Her offenses merit judgment since “the hearts of all men, both as individuals and as nations, are in the hands of God” (18). Could this be the reason she now stands on the edge of war? The choice is simple: Will America humbly receive God’s chastisement and seek greater obedience to his law, or will she continue to invite divine justice?
To encourage us, Blair recalls the example of Nineveh, who though great in her wickedness and disregard for the moral law, heeded the warnings of Jonah and was saved. “Let us avail ourselves of the wholesome example, which that people, unenlightened as they were, hath set us,“ he concludes (26).
That two ordinary ministers delivered such similar messages on this occasion suggests their exegesis was not so radical as it is today. True, these men were unencumbered by the anxieties which any whiff of nationalism raises in our post-war context. But their willingness to apply a clear meaning of these texts reveals a second–and related–deficiency that affects our political theology in the church.
Listen to Green and Blair’s sermons with modern ears and the absence of any evangelistic note is striking. As Josh Daws has so provocatively suggested, many evangelicals have turned the good work of evangelism into an idol. In the history of Protestant Christianity, the elevation of evangelism to a place of top priority is a relatively recent development and foreign to the tradition of Calvinism to which Green and Blair belonged. As Calvinist theologian Joel Beeke has said, “Other Christians say that evangelism or revival is their great concern…But ultimately, we have only one concern: to know God, to serve Him, and to see Him glorified” (Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism, 42). Not evangelism but the sovereignty of God, he says, is the “true marrow” of Calvinism (39).
True to their theological commitments, Green and Blair believed in God’s sovereignty to command the obedience of all nations. Ultimately, their sermons are just longer reflections on what the psalmist said in so few words: “For dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.”
But notice that their point–and that of the biblical text–is not devoid of grace. Certainly, God is just, but he is also merciful. For Blair, if he and his countrymen would only show “real contrition for, and conversion from our evil ways, we may hope for the blessing of God” (30). This is not the evangelism of “winsome politics” but simply a political application of Matthew 4:17: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
The current revival of historic Protestant political thought is exciting, but has yet to make real inroads into the preaching and teaching of the church. Absolutizing evangelism to a progressive, secular culture often means shutting our eyes to biblical interpretations and applications which cause discomfort–like what the text says about a nation’s obligation to obey God’s moral law. The fear of sounding too much like one of those dangerous “Christian Nationalists” is great.
But the benefit of reading old things, said C.S. Lewis, is that it “will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period” (Preface to On the Incarnation, 10). Today, that mistake is political pietism: to go along as if the natural is ultimately neutral and things like a nation’s laws or the character of its institutions, economy, and culture are beneath divine concern.
Since 1973, America has sacrificed 63 million of its unborn. Parents are asked to trade the responsibility and privilege to raise their own children for the chance to compete in the global economy. And the federal government–as well as many state and local governments–openly celebrate sexual deviancy. Do we believe any of this merits God’s wrath? The veracity with which most criticize the few who do suggests on the whole we don’t.
But tearing the natural and the spiritual apart cuts both ways. Though it relieves tension in a pluralistic society, it ultimately neuters God’s character. For Green and Blair, any nation that denied God’s sovereignty and his word–that he will be found with those who seek him and forsake those who forsake him–would make her no better than atheistic France and, more concernedly, put her on the same bloody path toward the guillotine.
Today, America is one of many nations who rage against the King of Kings. May she break from their ranks and serve him with fear, finding refuge in him.