Ordained by Heaven

Commentary on Joseph Lyman’s 1787 election sermon

Ben Dunson has an excellent column out today combatting misconceptions in the resurgent debate over church and state in Protestant circles (especially online). Ben is more gracious than I–no surprise there. I am beginning to think much of the “misunderstanding” is intentional on the part of our interlocutors. Or, at least, they are exhibiting no good faith attempt to understand the Christian nationalist whippersnappers. Which is to say, they are making no real attempt to confront the Protestant tradition.

Contra the charges of utopianism hurled at Christian nationalists–by contrast, the media calls it all dystopic–Ben asks,

“Is it an unrealistic expectation that they would actually do so? No one believes that even the best civil magistrates and the best human laws can usher in utopia. But does that mean that they therefore do not fulfil a vital purpose? Claiming that the state, because it cannot usher in the kingdom of God, also cannot maintain basic civic righteousness is unbiblical and indeed a denial of law and order at all.”

Quite right. I would love for someone on “the other side” to answer that. Do read the rest of Ben’s piece. He addresses more than just this issue. (You can rest easy, Ben is a New Testament professor, so you know he doesn’t hate the Bible like the Christian nationalists who just do political theory which, I hear, is by definition unserious.)

But I think the problem is deeper and the duty of the magistrate, of good government, to which we should aspire encompasses more than what we might call mere order. At present, order as the opposite of chaos, might be all we can hope for. Is that too much to ask of our regime? Anyway, my point is that the tradition, it seems to me, extends the duty to order–it is no less than that–beyond efficiency or bare absence of violence or general peace to necessarily include care of true religion. And this is done by more thoroughly considering the things in play, the nature of a ruler and his authority which is necessarily included within any attention given his role and duty by the New Testament just as the nature of a mountain is included, not redefined, when the Psalmist mentions one. The only alteration presented by the New Testament is the full revelation of true religion. To be a ruler, a magistrate simply is to care about morality and religion in the people because it is wrapped up in the happiness and good of a sociable, religious creature. The concern cannot be avoided rightly. That God provides authority and ordination to a ruler compounds the matter. What is being resisted by anti-Christian nationalists, or whatever we want to call them, is metaphysical, we might say, reality.

Joseph Lyman’s conception of the origin and purpose of government or civil authority is boilerplate, and that’s the point to highlight here. For those Biblicists that object to citation of the great pagans, Lyman relies almost entirely on scripture. The conundrum for those who want to “red letter” Christian nationalists is that older exegetes within the Protestant tradition thought scripture was entirely supportive and explicative of what the Christian nationalists are arguing for.

Moreover, Lyman is not just American, but an American preaching, in this sermon, at the dawn of the new Constitution which, the radical two kingdom folks—more libertarian than Reformed in their politics—reliably inform us, negated everything prior, a true new birth. The R2K’ers are not just anabaptist in their aversion to godly government and erroneous bifurcation of the Decalogue into heavenly and earthly categories, but anabaptist, so to speak, in their belief that temporal life required another birth, another baptism, which occurred, apparently, about 1,950 years after Christ. Semper reformanda, et cetera. They are also fundamentally inhuman in their political vision, a vision that inordinately separates body and soul—distinction is different than separation, mind you. As if men can compartmentalize themselves so easily. Being this out of step with the tradition is problematic, to say the least. To their chagrin, Baptist interlocutors with Christian nationalism have been much better. At least they are earnest and act in good faith.

In any case, Lyman is decidedly traditional in his understanding of these things. Here’s the basic progression, drawn from the first clause of Romans 13:4.

The minister of God is dedicated to order (“heaven’s first law”). Without order (“happiness and security”), nothing else works, nor do the graces of God (e.g., the church) have fertile ground in which to flourish. You may be tempted here, and as Lyman continues, to worry that Lyman is constructing dependence of the church on the state. This is a learned, kneejerk reaction. There is, in fact, a certain dependence here, albeit not absolute. Inside of Providence and God’s ordination of means, the church will never perish, but within the proper arrangement, it depends on civil authority for conditions conducive to its health and purpose. The myth that the church does best in adverse conditions never is and never has been proven. Christianity spread initially because of favorable conditions, i.e., Roman laxity on provincial cults, but only rose to world-altering prominence once those conditions became not merely favorable but supportive. This, again, does not suggest an ultimate dependence of Christ’s church on anything else in an absolute sense. But God has seen fit to ordain a power for temporal order that has been repeatedly employed as a means for the church’s health and growth.

Thus Lyman: “The prerogative of ordaining magistracy and civil authority, belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ; this claim he assumes to himself under the name of Wisdom. By me Kings reign and Princes decree justice. By me Princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth [Proverbs 8:15-16].”

No one contests that the source of civil power is God or that it is a divine institution. The only contentious thing pertains to its role or function, and the extent thereof. (Can something ordained by heaven possess a heavenly vision?) Lyman affirms too that no particular form of government is ordained. God has left it to circumstance and the judgment of men, but there must be some government. “The leading idea of scripture is, That communities constitute certain of their brethren to rule over them: and thus constituted, they are the ordinance of the Supreme Ruler.”

And so, what is a civil authority for? First, it is for the common good—the opposite of tyranny and oppression. Its job is to bless the community through “good and equal administration of government.” “To advance general happiness, to secure property, to increase true, rational liberty, and to preserve the lives of men, are the original purposes for which civil laws and magistrates are ordained by heaven.”

Surely, everyone agrees thus far. Good government rewards and proliferates the good and not in a preferential sense. It also punishes evil: “cherish virtue and extirpate vice; to avenge public and individual wrongs; to curb the excesses of selfish avarice and ambition,” etc. All that is usually unobjectionable today. It is the scope and substance of the “good” that bothers people if expanded beyond the parameters proscribed by liberalism.

Here’s the kicker from Lyman:

“And they would do well to remember, that not only the general welfare of the community is a principal object with all rulers who pursue the end of their appointment, but that God requires of them, a constant and watchful attention to the happiness of the church of Christ; and for this plain reason, that magistrates can in no way so substantially promote the common good, as by honoring the doctrines and followers of Jesus.”

Promotion of the good requires promotion not only of the general welfare—note the inclusion of this language by Gouverneur Morris in the Constitution’s preamble—but of the “happiness of the church.” The best way to promote the common good is to honor Christianity, by creating conditions conducive to the happiness of the church. Not just any church; not just “faith” in general or abstract; but the church of Christ Jesus. This duty is compounded by the fact of the source of civil authority, viz., the King of kings.

A lengthy quote from Lyman on this is appropriate here:

“Let rulers then receive their power, as proceeding from Christ, and by solemn testimonies of respect to him and to his disciples, honor him as their Sovereign: And thus kiss the Son, lest he be angry and they perish from the way. They are ordained for the particular benefit of the Church, for the prosperity of which, all the wheels of Providence, and all the revolutions of empire, have been in motion from the morning of time.

It should lie upon the minds of rulers, especially of those who make a profession, that they believe the truth of the Christian religion, to honor Christ by a true profession, and an answerable life, and by their immediate regards in all their administrations, to the prosperity and dignity of Christ’s family upon earth. This is God’s governing end in their appointment to rule, that his children may lead peaceable and quiet lives in godliness and honesty. It is a gross mistake, an affront upon the Lord of all worlds, to affirm, that civil magistrates have nothing to do for the church of Christ. Their paramount Sovereign, has taught them, that they cannot discharge their civil trust, without a diligent attention to his church upon earth. As well may the minister of an earthly Prince allege, that he has nothing to do for the peace and dignity of his master’s family, as civil rulers can allege, that they have no concern with the church, the family of the King of Zion. The magistrates most assiduous and unwearied labors are due, by his appointment, to the church of God.”

The Christian religion is the true religion. It should be promoted and protected for the sake of the good of the people and for the sake of Christ’s lordship. It’s that simple. To draw out the key line from above: “This is God’s governing end in their appointment to rule, that his children may lead peaceable and quiet lives in godliness and honesty. It is a gross mistake, an affront upon the Lord of all worlds, to affirm, that civil magistrates have nothing to do for the church of Christ.”

Government provides general order, but inside of Providence, the “governing end” of civil authority is to provide for his people. That is, the church. This is a distinctly Christian view. Why would any Christian entertain an alternative. Lyman takes into account the necessity of government, its source, and its end inside of God’s created order in which all things work for the good of his people, his own glory, and the triumph of Christ’s church over the gates of hell. Abstracting civil authority from this providential context turns it into a merely provisional, necessary evil lacking any grand purpose—it’s just something we have to put up with. Lyman presents a fuller, more satisfactory view, the traditional view.

Lyman goes on to list, in typical election sermon fashion, the character of the good ruler. He must love and know his people in a paternal, fatherly way. He must be instructed in politics and law, the historic institutions and principles of the government of his country. So on and so forth. The good ruler is a man of religion himself. Remember, this is not some spooky “medieval” commentary. This is an American sermon delivered in the early republic before a state legislature and governor under the same mode of government we ostensibly enjoy today. No one objected. No one thought it absurd then.  

“From rulers we may well expect submission to all God’s commandments, and that they cherish the appointed means of diffusing Christian knowledge, and by honoring Christ’s ministers and followers, become nursing fathers to the Church.

Some have thought that religion is no important part of a ruler’s character: It is true, that rulers without religion are to be obeyed. But when it is considered that they are made rulers ultimately for the good and prosperity of the Church, we must censure those for their ignorance or irreligion, who adopt a maxim so pernicious to civil society, and embarrassing to the interests of virtue and morality. Without religion, rulers have no God, unto whom they may repair and expect his blessing upon their administration. God is not with them, and when his presence is withdrawn, darkness and perplexity will fill their paths with snares and adversity. Immoral and ungodly rulers may affect courtesy, affability and patriotism to gain popularity; but they have no moral principle upon which the public may depend, and too often have they proved the scourge of the community, and the rod of God’s indignation against a profane or hypocritical people.

Therefore, we lay it down as a qualification of great moment to the State, that magistrates be men of piety, who have a governing regard to the glory of God, and a warm affection for the gospel of Christ. Such are the sentiments avowed in our form of government, which requires the great officers of government, before they enter upon their trust, to declare their belief of the Christian religion, as the religion taught from Heaven, for the happiness and salvation of lost men.”

Lyman continues to address the people and magistrates directly, imploring them to adopt the vision outlined in the sermon. Of course, the practical outworking of the magistrate’s duty will conform to his moment and place according to prudence. But the principles expressed above are not displaced thereby even if only an imperfect shadow of the ideal is achievable.

As I said in the introduction to the sermon, it runs over 11,000 words long. But do read the whole thing both for the sake of personal edification and inspiration, but also to inoculate yourself against the foolishness that passes for “political theology” in most American Protestant circles today—the kind that tries to cut us off from traditional thought like Lyman’s.

Image: The Catalogue of Honor or Tresury of True Nobility. Peculiar and Proper to the Isle of Great Britaine, by Thomas Milles (1550-1627), London, 1610.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Ordained by Heaven

  1. I would have never thought that Christian Nationalism leads to any kind of utopia. Rather, what it leads to is a withdrawal of Christians from the secular world so that they can find comfort in their own fortresses. But history shows that even with that, with a plethora of Christian nations, we end up world wars, imperialism, colonialism, religious wars, inquisitions, racism, slavery, sexism, and other various forms of abuse or exploitation of people. And the only thing that Christian Nationalism brought to those nations was sense of self-righteousness when they compared themselves with other nations. With that being a significant part of the history of Christendom, who in their right mind would have or read utopian expectations into Christian Nationalism. History always has a way of disrupting what we have deduced the present and/or future to be.

    Romans 13 talks of rewarding good and punish evil. But Romans 13 never defines good or evil. Rather, the definitions are assumed and we have to understand two points here. First, Paul was in part talking about the Roman government and that government’s standards of good and evil were no where close to relying on the Old Testament. Second, the Great Commission commands us not to circle the wagons until we can build our own protective fortresses, but to go throughout the world to preach and teach the Gospel. We are not to withdraw from the immoral unbelievers of the world, just those who confess to believe but are immoral. In fact, Paul’s concern is solely with the purity of the Church, not with the purity of society (I Cor 5). In addition, we are warned against being like the Gentiles who like to lord it over others. And yet Christian Nationalism would cause us to use the government to lord it over them and to remove so many of them from our presence in society. And just as Christ first came to serve, we are called to serve rather than rule. We are told to wait until Christ returns for His ruling over all. And it is a good thing for us that we are called to wait for that to come. Because we are not ready to be prime time citizens to be ruled over perfectly by Christ just yet. We too share many of the sins that our unbelieving neighbors practice, though not to the same degree.

    We are also described as being in exile and a partial illustration of that exile is the exile of God’s people in the Old Testament. There are a lot of similarities between what they experienced and what we are called to experience but with a major difference. We are to expand our community of believers by preaching and teaching the Gospel. We are also told that we have no home on earth (Hebrews). And yet, what does Christian Nationalism attempt to do?

    What is odd is that while many concepts of Christian Nationalism call for some degree of renewing the laws of Moses besides the 10 Commandments, those laws were relaxed for the Gentile believers in the Church by the Apostles both in the book of Acts and the epistles. Was it not because even the Apostles could keep those laws as they said so in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. And so how is it that those laws were relaxed for believers but now become enforced by the government on all? Why were those laws relaxed?

    Finally, when we get to Psalms 2, we need to ask how it was interpreted in its original setting. Is Psalms 2 about the need for Christian Nationalism or is it a warning to the nations about their rage against God’s anointed ones and how they will pay for their treatment of them? Here, does the right treatment of them mean privileging the Church over others in society or does it mean not conspiring to attack them?

    Cline writes as if he can frame issues by labeling those who disagree with Christian Nationalism. And yet, he ignores the contextual differences between the traditions and writers he cites and now and does not consider how the context in which those people wrote and spoke could have influenced how they interpreted the Scriptures. In addition, he ignores much of what the New Testament describes as the Church’s position in the world. He doesn’t address how the desire for Christian Nationalism runs counter to the carrying out of the Great Commission.

    We are called to exist in society with sinners who actively sin in many ways. The government must distinguish the sins it can tolerate in its people and which ones it cannot tolerate. Much more was tolerated when Romans 13 was written than would be tolerated by Christian Nationalism. Of course there were practices that the government tolerated or undertook that should not be tolerated. Does Christian Nationalism give us a good and workable models of Biblical thought to make those distinctions that would follow what was expected by the Apostles? In other words, did the Apostles envision Christian Nationalism as goal at any time?

    1. Just an editorial comment. The following line

      Was it not because even the Apostles could keep those laws as they said so in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

      should be changed to

      Was it not because even the Apostles could not keep those laws as they said so in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

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