We All Need Earthly Nations for Our Good
Christian nationalists claim that nations on earth can be Christian nations, and even more—that a fully Christianized world would contain multiple distinct Christian nations. Critics, however, have argued against the very possibility of a Christian nation, at least as ordinarily understood. Citing Peter’s first epistle—that the “people of God” are a “holy nation, a peculiar people” (2:9)—they assert that there is only one Christian nation—the church. The critics conclude that non-ecclesial nations cannot properly be called Christian.
Statement of Questions
The question between us is not whether the people of God on earth are a type of nation, for I affirm that the people of God, or the catholic church, constitute a true nation, properly speaking. “Nation” refers to a people “collected under one head, agreeing in the same manners and customs, and governed by the same laws,” as Matthew Henry wrote in his comments on 1 Peter 2:9.1 The church has Christ as King as its sole ruler (Col. 1:18); has an eschatological dwelling place (Mt. 25:34, Rev. 21:1-2); and has laws that govern both her principal activity, namely, worship by Word and Sacraments (Mt. 28:19, Acts 2:42), and her institutional governance (Eph. 4:11-13). These laws are sufficient to direct man to righteousness unto eternal life (2 Cor. 5:16-20). The church is indeed a nation—or kingdom—in the proper and non-analogous sense.
But, in affirming this, may one also affirm that earthly nations can be Christian? Yes, if we consider the church to be a specific type of nation to which one can belong while simultaneously and harmoniously belonging to another of a different type.
To state the proposition I am defending directly, I affirm that a Christian may belong simultaneously and harmoniously to two species of Christian nation: the universal, catholic church, which is fundamentally an eschatological nation or kingdom, though manifesting visibly on earth; and a particular, earthly Christian nation, which arises from natural principles and the application of grace.
There are two questions between us: 1) whether Christians can, in principle, belong simultaneously and harmoniously to two nations of distinct types, and 2) whether an earthly nation can properly be called “Christian”.
The Heavenly Nation
We can identify the two types of Christian nations as “heavenly” and “earthly.” They differ in species by the immediate objects and ends for which each is formed—one for things gracious, eternal, and heavenly; the other for things natural, temporal, and earthly. One is above nature and the other is natural.
The “heavenly nation” is the church, which refers not merely to its institutional order, which is itself temporal, but fundamentally to a people (viz., the elect) under Christ as Mediator. As a heaven-oriented people under Christ (Phil. 3:20), the church provides what is good for the soul, mainly by means of the ecclesiastical administration, instituted by God. Reformed theologian Bartholomew Keckermann stated that “the ecclesiastical order is that by which the church society is directed to the worship of God [cultum dei] and the salvation of souls.” Similarly, Johan Alsted wrote that the instituted church is “a divine order of the faithful for the holy communion of holy things.”2 In the church, man receives the highest good, namely, the spiritual good of eternal life.
The people of God, considered as a holy priesthood, love one another by communicating the things of this communion—things that have eternal life as their immediate end (1Thess. 5:11). This heavenly nation (considered apart from the institution) is catholic, or universal; it is global, to put it in a modern way (WCF 25:1,2). But its true dwelling place is not earthly; it is heavenly (Eph. 2:6). In essence, the church is invisible (being seated in the inner man); it is eschatological (Eph. 2:7); and it is gracious, having been generated supernaturally, not naturally (Eph. 2:8). Nevertheless, it manifests outwardly, primarily in the profession of true religion and in the preaching and hearing of the Word, the administration and reception of the Sacraments, and in exercising the keys of the kingdom. But it also manifests in acts of spiritual service performed by laymen.
In other words, one really belongs to this heavenly nation—all Christians are members of the spiritual kingdom of Christ—and even with respect to the whole man. But its futural finality—that for which Christians eagerly await (Ro. 8:23)—limits the type of things immediately procured from it. The church as the heavenly nation looks to the future coming of Christ (Tit. 2:13); we set our minds on things above (Col. 3:2); we hope for the glorification of the body promised to us in Christ (Phil. 3:21). The kingdom of Christ, though providing us the highest good, does not and cannot directly provide us the many lesser goods necessary for living well in this world (John 18:36). That is to say, the administration of the Word and Sacraments offers the greatest and highest good but not the complete good in this life, which is evident from the very design of the instituted church. It administers sacred things that feed the soul (John 6:35), not the body; and they point one to a higher home (Mt. 26:29).
For this reason, this heavenly nation, though manifesting in a way on earth, is wholly inadequate to provide the complete good of man in this present life. There is no church-regulated market economy, fire department, or public works office, let alone any ecclesial minister empowered as such charged to order civil society (Mt. 20:25-29). Calvin rightly said that “Piety and spiritual doctrine do not confer a knowledge of human arts.” Earthly goods are not procured or secured (at least directly) by the powers, offices, things, or administration of the heavenly kingdom. Man is, therefore, in need of something else to secure these goods. They need earthly nations.3
Christian Earthly Nations
The fact that we need something in addition to the church for our good is not itself controversial, lest we want church ministers through their office acting as police chiefs, military officers, and district attorneys, for example. We all need earthly nations for our good. What is controversial is the claim that nations can be Christian, and so I turn to that question.
First, I will clarify what I am not affirming. An earthly Christian nation is not a spiritually regenerate body. Only the church, as to its internal membership (i.e., the elect), is a regenerate body (Eph. 2:1-6). Nor is it, as a corporate entity, “redeemed” by the gospel, properly speaking. The gospel redeems only individuals (or perhaps the elect corporately). The earthly nation can, however, be restored as a secondary effect of redemption – a renewal that properly redirects the natural principles of nations to their fulfillment by grace (Ps. 33:12). Thus, nations are made Christian not by overthrowing their natural principles, nor by immanentizing the eschaton, nor by pulling heaven down to earth, nor by ushering in the New Jerusalem, nor by conflating the earthly nation with a church.
An earthly nation is a Christian nation by its activity—when everyday life is invested and adorned with Christianity (e.g., Christian manners and expectations) and when life orients around distinctly Christian practices such as the worship of God (e.g., sabbath observance). Such activity flows from and reinforces a national self-conception as Christian.
To illustrate my definition further, consider an analogous entity—the Christian family. The family as a corporate entity cannot be regenerate or redeemed; it is not itself an object of redemption. But the members of a Christian family think of themselves collectively as a Christian entity, and they conduct Christian practices, such as family worship, prayer, church attendance, and forgiveness in Christ (e.g., Eph. 5:22, 25; 6:4). These two elements, self-conception and practices, make the family, as a corporate entity, a Christian family. Although the Christian element is of grace, the family itself remains fundamentally a natural family—a household of husband and wife with or expecting children. Grace has a twofold function vis-à-vis the family: 1) it corrects error and 2) it supplies what is necessary (after the fall of man) for the fulfillment of natural principles. Thus, for example, the natural principle which dictates, the natural family ought to worship God, is fulfilled in application when the family worships God in Christ. This fulfillment neither extinguishes the natural principle nor excludes grace from its application. Grace restores and completes nature. Grace restores the family such that the natural family fulfills its natural principles of action by grace.
Likewise, the Christian nation is an earthly entity whose natural principles are applied and fulfilled in light of grace. Although the nation’s immediate purpose is to provide the lesser goods necessary for living well in this world, it can still be Christian–when Christianity adorns everyday life and life revolves around distinctly Christian things, such as Sunday worship. It is Christian because it orders the lower things to the higher things. To be sure, no one is saved ipso facto by belonging to a Christian nation, nor can civil authorities command belief in the Gospel or administer sacred things, nor can any earthly power bring about spiritual effects by command (2 Chr. 26:18; Jn. 18:36). A Christian earthly nation is Christian because its totality of action directs man to the heavenly things of eternal life, which are administered in and by the church.4
Given this understanding of the earthly Christian nation, such nations have indeed existed, and so are possible. But are they permissible? I affirm. Here are a few arguments, each independently demonstrating the same conclusion.
1. A people, as a corporate entity, is a moral entity, which explains why nations can be held responsible for their actions (Ps. 110:6). All moral entities must acknowledge not only the moral law but the lawgiver (which logically follows from the very reception of law), and thus nations ought to acknowledge God. Acknowledging God requires both word and deed. Thus, nations ought to act in their acknowledgment of God. And since those who acknowledge God must acknowledge the true God, they must acknowledge the Triune God in action.
2. Nations ought to arrange themselves such that they procure their complete good. Eternal life is a good. Therefore, nations ought to arrange themselves, within the limits of their powers, to procure the good of eternal life.
3. Loving your neighbor includes seeking the best possible outward conditions for your neighbor to procure both earthly and heavenly good. A Christian nation is, ordinarily, the best possible condition for such procurement, since it arranges life with Christian things that order the body politic for temporal and eternal life.5
The Numbers of Nations
There is necessarily only one heavenly nation. Christ rules over it as king immediately (that is without an earthly head), and its laws are universal and unchanging, being established in his Word and promulgated by his ministers. The laws of Christ, regarding the rule for eternal life, are not affected by temporal circumstances.
Earthly nations, however, are ruled by Christ mediately—through human rulers—who have a power of God to institute civil law that is mutable, being subject to circumstances and change. Also, no earthly nation can be territorially universal or worldwide, for they are naturally and necessarily bounded, given the limits of effective civil administration. Nor can the culture of some Christian nation be universal, for each Christian nation is culturally different (Acts 17:26). Man is, by nature, designed to receive a way of life from his ancestors, without which he is lost in this world and insecure, lacking confidence in action. National culture is necessarily intergenerational. Though there is a common cultus for all Christians in the shared elements of worship, God did not reveal and command a universal and sufficient “gospel culture” for the everyday things of this world, to which all Christians everywhere must conform. Grace did not reveal a universal language, set of manners, and particular social expectations—all of which are absolutely necessary for flourishing civil communities. The gospel supplies the universal means to eternal life, not some universal Christian civil culture.
I will conclude with one corollary. The church-as-nation, as I’ve said, is essentially heavenly and invisible, but it manifests on earth as those who “profess the true religion” who constitute “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Westminster Confession reads (25.2, 3). As a citizen of heaven, each Christian is a foreigner, sojourner, and stranger to this world.6 Likewise, in his capacity as a church minister, a pastor is an emissary from another world—a foreigner. Indeed, an instituted church, is a sort of foreign entity, even if we aptly call it “our church” and even if civil authorities have some hand in its institution and maintenance. The instituted church is, for this reason, a guest, an object of hospitality for the earthly nation. Johan Alsted once said that “[civil] politics is the guest-chamber of the church [hospitium ecclesiae] and defends it with the secular sword.” Churches require this hospitality precisely because they are, in one aspect, visible and earthly and yet equipped only for an invisible or eschatological end. For this reason, they require a supply of earthly goods for their quiet and peaceable operations (1Tim. 2:2). Earthly nations must serve the heavenly nation as earthly hosts serve heavenly guests (Ps. 2:2). It is an act of national hospitality.
Christians can, in principle, belong simultaneously and harmoniously to two nations, each being of a different type. One is the church, considered as a heavenly nation (1 Peter. 2:9), and the other is an earthly nation with Christian practices and a self-conception. The former nation is one and universal and is ruled immediately by Christ as Mediator. The latter are many and ruled mediately by human rulers, and each is legally and culturally different. Earthy nations, though not objects of redemption, can be Christian in the same way that families can be Christian—by activity and self-conception. Together, these two types of nations provide the complete good of man, each serving one of man’s two ends; and the lower serves the higher like the body serves the soul.
The preceding discussion makes clear that the truth of 1 Peter 2:9—that the people of God are a nation—in no way precludes Christian earthly nations but rather insists upon them. The church-as-nation is sufficient only for man’s eternal end, something apparent in its very nature and limits. For this reason, we need earthly nations for our earthly good, and our Christian work in this world ought to include the formation and sustainment of Christian nations.
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