Be More than Pagan, But Not Less Than Pagan

Against Second Tabularianism, Again

Despite what certain of our bad faith interlocutors suggest, no one serious is arguing for coerced faith. Admittedly, the expansive, voluntarist conception of “religious liberty” that now predominates legal and popular discourse would make, by contrast, any promotion of one religion over another “coercive.” Our conception of the word needs radical alteration. But in principle, and in the true sense of the word, no one, no Christian nationalist, is arguing for coerced faith, mainly because it’s an impossibility. This does not, however, negate the promotion and protection of true religion. To paraphrase Richard Baxter in Holy Commonwealth, men cannot be forced to embrace the Gospel truly, but they can be subjected to coercive conditions conducive to conversion—yes, my explosive “C4” formulation is directly drawn from Baxter. That is, they can hear public preaching, see public Christian symbols, and live under Christian laws, all of which are preparatory for true faith. Protestants used to believe that. (We must realize how subconsciously formative social conditioning is, and that this fact does not make belief illegitimate.) Law requires authority, i.e., lawgivers or government, obviously.

This leads to our next point. Neither does the fact that faith cannot be coerced negate the religious interest, role, or function of the magistrate. Again, some critics of the new Christian right, such as it is, imagine that the care by civil or temporal authority for religion would not only deaden orthodoxy by reducing Christianity to mere custom or cultural practice or mechanism of social expedience—perennial problems—but also eliminate the a la carte voluntarist religiosity they think constitutes socio-spiritual nirvana. For this reason, to make society, in fact, more Christian, they think, they artificially limit the purview of magistrates to “common grace”—the evangelical way to say “natural law” without being a Thomist—within a “principled pluralist” context. The second table of the Decalogue is the sum total of civil authority; the first table is out of bounds. You have heard all these things before. And, at bottom, they are not wrong, but rather only partially right. It is a half-truth that government must govern by natural law. Or, we might say better, a half-half-truth. It is not even a full pagan truth since, unlike our modern champions of “religious liberty,” even the former recognized the proper centrality of religion in a state. It is strange, indeed, to appeal to the natural law as the basis of human government but to ignore that belief in God, the eternal source of the natural law, is a dictate of the same. And, to get really controversial, it is advisable that if we are going to believe in God it should probably be the true one.

Consider something else from Richard Baxter, in the Christian Directory, providing memorandums for the Christian magistrate: “Let none persuade you that you are such terrestrial animals that have nothing to do with the heavenly concernments of your subjects; for it once men think that the end of your office is only the bodily prosperity of the people.” (Baxter dealt with the same topic in Holy Commonwealth and elsewhere.)

Among other things, this will “tempt” people to degrade the magistrate’s office and to unnaturally bifurcate man’s existence. For, “There is no such thing as a temporal happiness to any people, but what tendeth to the happiness of their souls.” Whilst it is true that “ministers are more immediately employed about the soul,” yet, the magistrate’s office is “ultimately for the happiness of souls” even as temporal (i.e., “bodily things (rewards or punishments)) are the means by which the magistrate promotes the heavenly things.

Richard Hooker (Lawes) and Peter Martyr Vermigli (Loci Communes) said similar things. Unless magistrates govern hogs or cattle, mere material creatures that lack the image of God that is the rational soul, then the fullness of man, including his spiritual nature, must be considered in governance. Therefore, the magistrate has, in this way, care of souls, even if his means of care differ from that of pastors.

Accordingly, the magistrate is the “custodes utriuqsque tabluae,” the custodian of both tables, that of both spiritual and bodily relations. This used to be typical Romans 13 exegesis—our critics also erroneously accuse us of sidelining the Bible, or something. Edward Leigh (Body of Divinity) comments on the same phrase: “Here the Spirit of God sets forth, 1. The office of a Magistrate, to bear the sword. 2. The end, which is double, 1. The Minister of God for thy good, in general. 2. To execute wrath on him that doth evil.” And “evil” is not limited in the text by some bodily harm principle, as if only theft and murder were in view. Moreover, the magistrate, as protector and cultivator of socio-political order, is, it must be admitted, concerned with those things that provide for the health and stability of said order. Because he deals with men, full men, the ingredients of society reflect that anthropology. Spiritual beings form spiritual societies. It is inevitable.

The great pagans recognized this.

Francis Turretin (Institutes), addressing the “political government of the church,” demonstrates the magistrate’s religious charge via various proofs. (Note that this is the last inquiry in Turretin’s chapter on “The Church,” perhaps because the political governance of the church is a fundamental aspect of Reformed ecclesiology.) But first, the statement of the orthodox position:

“They sin in excess who claim all ecclesiastical power for the magistrate… and think that no power belongs to pastors except what is derived from the magistrate.” The “sin in defect,” by contrast, belongs to the Romanists (i.e., Robert Bellarmine), and removes the magistrate

“from all care of ecclesiastical things so that he does not care what each one worships and allows free power to anyone of doing and saying whatever he wishes in the cause of religion. Or who, although they ascribe to him the care of nourishing and defending the church, so that he may kindly cherish and powerfully defend it, still leave nothing of recognition and nothing of judgment concerning religion save the execution alone to him.”

Against both extremes, the orthodox occupy the golden mean. Turretin provides various Scriptural proofs—Deuteronomy 17, Joshua 1, 2 Kings 11, Psalm 2, Psalm 72, Isaiah 49, Isaiah 60, Psalm 82, Isaiah 44, and 1 Samuel 24—for the assertion that the magistrate possesses a “multiple right concerning sacred things,” for “To him was committed the custody of the divine law.” Further “approved examples” of Old Testament kings (i.e., Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Joash) and pious emperors (i.e., Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian) are provided.

And, indeed, 1 Timothy 2:2 confirms the magistrate’s religious interest. How else may a quiet and peaceable life be led in all godliness and honesty without a “special care for religion”? Leigh calls the worship of God the “fountain of public honesty.” Why?

It is simple. The allowance of heresy, blasphemy, etc. is dishonest because it is untrue and insults the source of governing power and subverts the magistrate’s role for the public good of men. It is the same reason that atheists used to be considered untrustworthy and, therefore, incapable of holding public office or of serving on juries. There cannot be trust or tranquility without shared religion.

Turretin does continue to argue the magistrate’s religious interest “from reasons.” By which he means the testimony of the wise and good pagan philosophers—this method of demonstration is typical of Reformed commentators on such topics. Commended to kings, princes, magistrates, governors is “the safety of the state and all things pertaining to it, among which the care of religion and of sacred things is conspicuous.” Who says? Aristotle, who “assigns ‘the service of religion’ the principal place among those things without which the state cannot exist.” Plato too, “Special regard must be paid to religion in the state,” because religion is “the bond of all society and the pillar of just law.” And lastly, Cicero, who, not unlike Leigh, called religion “the foundation of human society.”

Of course, Turretin goes on at length to describe the limits and purposes of magisterial authority in this regard. In case you were wondering, he does affirm the magistrate’s right to coerce and punish heretics “in order to drive out the consuming plague from the churches,” albeit this should be performed with care and prudence. In any case, Turretin’s pagan proofs for the general proposition above is of immediate interest here, not now the ins and outs of circa sacra and adiaphora, etc. Hold those proofs in mind for a moment. Worth noting too is that Turretin describes the state as a “guest chamber” for the church, much like Stephen Wolfe has here. Meaning, the church is owed protection. 

Contra what some commentators assume today, Baxter, and others of his persuasion, were, in fact, concerned with genuine faith in subjects; Turretin also denies that faith can be coerced. It is for this very reason that godliness must be encouraged and ungodliness combated, the polar opposite conclusion of modern evangelicals. This may be paradigm-busting for some. The bottom line is that if you only have a second table-based, “natural law” regime, people will never go further in holiness than the best of the pagan philosophers. It is a modernist, liberal supposition that the pursuit of religion itself is a human good, that the journey is just as important, at least provisionally, as the destination.

Again, if we want to be more than pagan in our socio-political order then we would do well to exceed their insight. As it stands, I’m not sure most evangelicals would accept what Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero knew. But if they care about their countrymen attaining true godliness and embracing the Gospel then they will consider not only the indispensability of religion to national stability but the importance of civil promotion of Christianity to the emergence of “revival” our voluntarist loves of spontaneity so long for. Those who deny the means of Providence set down for the renewal and longevity of any society often lean on the unpredictable work of the Spirit as an excuse for said denial. They should be taken to task for it regularly and often.

Image Credit: Moses with the Ten Commandments, Rembrandt 1659

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

One thought on “Be More than Pagan, But Not Less Than Pagan

  1. It seems that despite his denials that a Christian government would force faith on people, Cline wants the government to enforce both tables of the 10 Commandments so that people can advance in holiness farther than the pagan philosophers did. But if it is impossible to please God without faith (Heb 11:6), how is it that we can advance in holiness at all without faith? Doesn’t Cline’s reasoning for the government to enforce the 1st table of the 10 Commandments then introduce a works righteousness?

    In addition, Cline ignores the obvious oppression in that while the government cannot coerce faith, it can coerce people to obey the 10 Commandments and say only what can be in agreement with Orthodox Christianity. For according to Cline, the government mustn’t allow heresy or blasphemy or other sins. But how can we live in a peaceful and just society when unbelievers are forced to comply with Christian orthodoxy in both word and deed? And what kind of compliance can they show without faith? Heck, don’t we Christians do what James says in Chapter 3, which is that we stumble many times?

    Cline’s interpretation of I Timothy 2:2 also needs questioning. For how is it that a general peaceful and just society cannot provide Christians with the opportunity to live peaceful and quiet lives? But how can one have a just society when the government is charged with prosecuting those who stray from Orthodox Christianity in either word or deed? Likewise, Cline neglects to mention that good and evil mentioned in Romans 13 was known by Paul’s audience and was not explicitly listed. That makes dogmatically interpreting parts of Romans 13 problematic. After all, which sexual sin that Paul addressed did Paul say the civil authorities should punish?

    I recently had lunch with an old friend, not that the friend was old, but the friendship was. And when talking about the pro-life position and evangelism, I told my friend that our first job as Christians who oppose elective abortion is that of damage control. Why? All we have to do is to look and see how the majority of Americans support some pro-choice view. All we have to do is to hear the criticisms of the pro-life movement regarding its inconsistencies and on it focuses so much attention on the welfare of the unborn that the welfare of the born is often ignored. And regarding the Faith, all we have to do is to look around and see that we are not living in Christendom anymore–which I think is a good thing anyway. All we have to do is to see why Critical Theory and Post Modernism was born.

    Returning back to the yesteryear of Christendom will only add to the damage already visited on the reputation of the Gospel; it won’t silence it. In addition, there is nothing in the New Testament that warranted even the first appearance of Christendom, let alone its resurrection.

    Cline is arguing from deduction using Christian traditions from Christendom as his canon. His justification for his proposals that come from the Old Testament again ignore the key difference between then and now: that God’s only covenant people of today is the Church whose members are spread throughout the world. And, logically speaking, Cline has tasked them with not just preaching the Gospel, but replacing whatever government that they live under with a “Christian government.” But where in the New Testament are we believers given such an assignment?

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