But What If We Win?

Commentary on John Davenport

Consternation from certain wings of Evangelicalism over Christian nationalism consistently ignores threshold questions for essential any political theory, thereby exposing they do not have an operative political theory apart from baptizing the status quo. Namely, what would you do if you could start from scratch? What is best and permissible in principle? What is the ideal? Or as one friend likes to ask, what if we win? What if Christians were in charge and the majority of the population was at least culturally Christian? What kind of polity, what kind of church-state relationship, what kind of laws would you set up? I shudder to think how limp and lame many contemporary answers to these questions would be.

Concessions according to prudence and context can only be properly considered once these kinds of threshold questions, the types of questions political theory are most concerned with, have been answered.

This is the entire purpose of the so-called state of nature discourse. It is not, in its best form, concerned with vainly divining primordial existence. Rather, it is a heuristic for determining proper socio-political organization.

A fatal problem with most of our interlocutors is that they do not or cannot contemplate these things. Their entire vision, intellectual frame, is saturated with what currently is, or at least as they understand what is, which is almost never in a functional but rather ideological sense.

That is, the ideological sense—explanations—as proscribed by the incumbent ideology itself. This exercise is unserious because it is unrealistic and lacks utility.

In any case, this, among other reasons, is why reading older political theory from our rich Protestant tradition is essential, even if the reader rejects the conclusions therein, the sources in view reform the mind. John Davenport’s short treatise, A Discourse About Civil Government (1663), is one such text and should be read, for maximum effect, in conjunction with his 1669 election sermon.

To begin, Davenport improves upon the predominant framing of church-state questions.

“the only wise God hath fitted and appointed two sorts of Administrations, Ecclesiastical and Civil. Hence, they are capable of a twofold Relation, and of Action and Power suitable to them both; viz. Civil and Spiritual, and accordingly must be exercised about both in their seasons, without confounding those two different states, or destroying either of them.”

This is, of course, boilerplate. Few disagreements will emerge from it. We have two administrations or polities, spiritual or ecclesiastical and civil. What will appear irregular to some readers is that Davenport elects not to distinguish between the two administrations or powers with a church-state (commonwealth) dichotomy, but rather to speak of a “Christian Communion” with the ecclesiastical and civil administrations being two species of the same Christian communion genus. This makes sense given that God is the author and efficient cause of both, his glory is the end of both, and man is the common subject of both. Differences, indeed, remain. Thus, they are not of identical species and the genus in which they both participate is limited to two species (e.g., Luke 22:38).

The kind or expression of power is a notable distinction. Davenport says the ecclesiastical power has only “oeconomical” power by which he means stewardship given that Christ is the only true head of the universal invisible church. The civil power, on the other hand, possesses “despotical” power (Luke 22:25), or what Baxter would call regal power or Hale would call nomothetical power. Christ has given civil rulers “lordly” power over men (1 Peter 2:13). This is proper since, while there is overlap, the ecclesiastical power primarily concerns itself with the inner man and the civil power with outer man, albeit, again, this distinction is not clean or absolute. For the ecclesiastical power is accidentally, we might say, concerned with the outer man just as the civil power is accidentally concerned with the inner man, but these are auxiliary concerns.

The glory of God is the final end of both administrations of Christian communion. Their mediate ends are diverse. The mediate end of civil order is preservation of society and the common welfare; the mediate end of the ecclesiastical order is salvation of souls and the sanctification of men. But both, as receptors of power from God must glorify God.

These differences explain their difference in operation. But this does not make them contrary to one another or anywise in tension. They are to be “coordinate States,” mutually helpful, reciprocal, aiding the whole man within one Christian communion and honoring the same God.

Here we have the ideal, theoretical relationship between what we now call church and state. This is the vision of a happy, cohesive and coherent society. Now the question arises as to what is to be done in a preexisting society and a newly founded one “wherein men are free to choose what Form they shall judge best.”

Here’s the kicker. Many Christians today take Paul’s advice to the Romans as perennial, delineating the permanent posture for believers (i.e., subjugation and martyrdom) in any and all circumstances. Davenport begs to differ. An extended quote is in order. Be forewarned: it will break some brains.

“For I conceive, when Paul exhorted the Romans to be subject to the higher Powers, who at that time were Heathen men, and Persecutors, he considered that Civil State as settled, and suited his Advice accordingly. But if he had been to Direct them about laying the Foundation of a Christian Commonwealth, he would not have advised them to choose such Governors as were one of the Church but would have seriously forewarned them of the danger whereunto the Church would have been exposed thereby, and that unavoidably.

And that this may not be thought a slight and uncertain conjecture, let us consider what advice he gave in like cases: Ye know, that writing to persons already Married he exhorteth the believing wife to live with the unbelieving husband [1 Corinthians 7:13]; yet the same Apostle directeth the same Church, in case they were free to make their own choice, to avoid such matches: Be not unequally yoked (saith he) with Infidels [1 Corinthians 6:14-15]; for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what part hath the believer with the infidel? In like manner [1 Peter 2:18], when Peter exhorted Christian Servants to be subject to their Masters with all fear, not onely to the good and gentle, but also to the forward, he did accommodate his instruction to their present condition. But had he been to direct them in another state being free, to choose what might be best for themselves, he would have expressed himself otherwise, as may appear by this.

The same Spirit that inspired Peter thus to advise in this case, guided Paul further in a different case [1 Corinthians 7:21]: Art thou called being a servant, (saith he) care not for it, but if thou [must] be free, use it rather. And that if he had written to a company of Believers in a New Plantation, where the Foundations of the Church and Civil State, and the communion of both, was to be laid for many Generations to come, he would have advised them to take the same course which we plead for, may appear by his reproving the Church in Corinth, for carrying their differences before Heathen Magistrates to be judged by them, though he press them to be subject to their power [1 Corinthians 1:6]:

Had the unbelieving Magistrates cited them to appear before their Judgement-seats, he taught them both by Precept and by his Example to submit. But when they were at liberty to compose civil Differences among themselves, and yet they would voluntarily, and of their own accord, choose to bring their cases before those that were without the Church, this he blameth in them; and that so far, as he demandeth why they do not rather suffer wrong then take such a course? plainly intimating, that men that profess the fear of God if they be free to make choice of their Civil Judges, (as in this New Plantation we are) they should rather choose such as are Members of the Church for that purpose, then others that are not in that estate. The same Rule holdeth by proportion in all things of like nature: for Parium par est ratio [equal things are of equal value].”

Does the New Testament preclude winning, so to speak? Hardly. And Davenport shows why. Context, circumstance, and the instruction of the entire corpus must be taken into account for any good hermeneutic. Those who demand a New Testament endorsement of a Christian commonwealth—they do not do the same for, say, infant baptism—are being lazy proof texters. Paul did not address such a case because it was not the scenario before the Roman church. But certainly, neither did he preclude it. One need only discern his reasoning in other cases to understand what the answer would have been. Moreover, the things of political theory may not contradict scripture, but neither are they chiefly drawn therefrom. Grace does not abrogate nature, et cetera.

It is ludicrous to say that Christians, given the opportunity, must robotically replicate conditions unfavorable to them out of some pilgrim-sojourner ethic or, more likely in the case of our usual interlocutors, out of some fealty to “limited government” and twentieth century conception of the First Amendment. Where is that in the New Testament anyway?

Objectively, what is the best form of government, were Christians to have a choice? Simple. “That form of Government which giveth unto Christ his preeminence.” This does not describe a specific distribution of labor, but a disposition, viz., a Christian commonwealth. The particulars must be fitted to prudence, need, and history. But what is clear from Davenport is that a Christian commonwealth is one of coordinate states wherein rulers fulfill Isaiah 49:23 by helping, nourishing, and protecting the true religion, the true church. None of this implies a dependence of Christ’s objective preeminence on any earthly powers—get that out of your head! It is a matter of duty, justice, and order according to the natures and ends of both powers. More basically, the best form of government is one where both church and state flourish according to their design, mutuality, and end (mediate and final). In other words, a form of government wherein body and soul of subjects is cared for and no antagonism or contestation is formed between the care of each.

The pursuit of these ends could (and will) take on various forms, as noted already. As to the original American context, a certain degree of liberality can be enjoyed where homogeneity and agreement are prevalent. But the concessions and applications of the aforementioned ends of a good commonwealth cannot be perpetual apart from precipitating conditions. To make them universally proscriptive and insensitive to time, place, and circumstance is nonsensical, insane even.

One last thing—you must read all of Davenport for yourself—is the question of functional and descriptive analysis. We have been sketching an ideal above. But much of that ideal takes into account not only the metaphysical, we might say, reality of church and state as constituted by God, but also the reality in practice. At the risk of being redundant, it must once again be said that all societies prefer and perpetuate a religion. We might just be the first one to be in denial about it. I often cite William Prynne’s marvelous passage on this from his Sword of Christian Magistracy (1653), but Davenport gets at this as well.

“In all Popish Countries and Plantations, they observe it strictly, to entrust none with the managing of Public Civil Affairs, but such as are Catholics (as they speak) and of the Roman Church. Yea, in Turky itself, they are careful that none but a man devoted to Mahomet bear public Office. Yea, these very Indians that Worship the Devil, will not be under the Government of any Sagamores, but such as join with them in Observance of their Pawawes [i.e., powwows] and Idolatries: That it seems to be a Principle imprinted in the minds and hearts of all men in the equity of it, That such a Form of Government as best serveth to Establish their Religion, should by the consent of all be Established in the Civil State.”

So then, what should a Christian people do? An embattled minority must consult the advice of the Apostle to the Romans. But what of a predominantly Christian population surrounded (even still) by vestiges of their Christian heritage living in a land settled by Christians for Christian purposes and under a government constructed for Christian ends? There is only one reasonable answer to this hypothetical.

Image Credit: Clavary Skirmish, Peter Snayers (1592-1667)

Print article

Share This

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 “But What If We Win?

  1. Christian magistrates enforcing the first table of the law would legitimize holy-war and wielding the sword in the name of Christ. Has Christ authorized the use of his name for that? If he hasn’t, then doing so risks taking his name in vain. Our zeal to uphold the first table may actually transgress it.

    Christians don’t win according to worldly power metrics. Our hope is not worldly success or power in this age. The “pilgrim-sojourner ethic” is exactly where the NT leads. The NT ethic leads Christians outside the camp where they “bear the reproach he endured.  For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13-14). We are a “little flock” that ought not anxiously seeking after that which “nations of the world seek after” for it’s the “Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:28-34). For “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior” (Philippians 3:20). The kingdom “is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Whatever our view of the kingdom, we don’t wield the sword (like Peter) in the name of Christ. The world is going to “hate” christians because it “hated” Christ. If they persecuted Christ, they will persecute us (John 15). They wanted to make Jesus king (John 6:15).. but he denied it and went the way of the cross. If Christ turned down earthly civic rule, shouldn’t we give pause to taking it up in his name? A servant is not greater than his master.

    In our striving towards towards political winning, we risk missing the enjoyment of all that Christ has already eternally secured for us in the New Heavens and New Earth. An eternal inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for you. An eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. We can endure weakness and losing not because we want or seek it…. but because His grace is all-sufficient, and His power made perfect in our weakness. Our strength is in Christ alone, not political power. We are more than conquerors not in our political wins, but because Christ will utterly shatter all the cosmic powers of this present darkness, just not yet. Come what may in civics, sharing in his glorified victory by faith alone is what we bank on now.

    This doesn’t mean we don’t get involved with politics or seek the common good, of course we do. We just don’t baptize “despotical” power with Christ’s name and persecute religions with the sword. The preached gospel is the living sword that conquers hearts in Christ name. The gates of hell will not prevail against that power.

    So, I’ll take Paul’s divinely inspired explicit instructions over Davenport’s speculation of what Paul maybe actually meant. After all… within Protestantism scripture reforms tradition, not vice versa.

  2. What are the problems with the above article? In answering what would we do if we win, Cline relies on deductive projections. Note the following quote about Paul from Davenport in the above article:

    But when they were at liberty to compose civil Differences among themselves, and yet they would voluntarily, and of their own accord, choose to bring their cases before those that were without the Church, this he blameth in them; and that so far, as he demandeth why they do not rather suffer wrong then take such a course? plainly intimating, that men that profess the fear of God if they be free to make choice of their Civil Judges, (as in this New Plantation we are) they should rather choose such as are Members of the Church for that purpose, then others that are not in that estate. The same Rule holdeth by proportion in all things of like nature: for Parium par est ratio [equal things are of equal value].”.’

    In that line, Davenport is speaking for Paul. So we might ask here, is Davenport using logic to add to God’s Revelation? And this is one of the key problems with Cline’s promotion of the Christian state. It starts with a premise and follows a line of logic that is not instructed by the rest of the Scriptures and/or ignores contextual differences in the comparisons it uses. In other words, those from the Reformed traditions rely too heavily on logical deduction not just to define life as it is in the present, but to determine what it should be if we had certain opportunities. In ignoring the rest of the Scriptures, Cline’s and Davenport’s line of thinking precludes what the New Testament says about how we are to share society with unbelievers. That line of thinking precludes how Jesus instructed his disciples on how to handle an unreceptive audience. That line of thinking precludes Jesus’s warning against being like the Gentiles of His day who liked to ‘lord it over others..’ In fact, instructing the Church not to be like the Gentiles, just as Paul’s warning not to be conformed to the world, could dissuade us from following the examples of how unbelievers rule which Davenport used support his Christian plantation theory. And finally, Cline’s and Davenport’s line of thinking precludes us imitating Paul when he said that he is not the judge of the sexual immorality of society (see I Cor 5:12-13).

    Of course, another problem is that we don’t currently have the demographic support which existed in Davenport’s time–in fact, I think even Davenport addresses this. But even if we did, should we treat unbelievers in society in the same way that some unjust unbelievers have treated Christians who mandated that Christians should follow heathen ways? Why would we feel justified in so doing? It is because we called a state or part of it a Christian Communion despite the presence of unbelievers.

    By separating our Christian Nation, or New Commonwealth, from the world, we would be using another means to do what Paul told us should not be done, which is to separate ourselves from immoral unbelievers. Also, the Great Commission, the New Testament Scriptures that refer to us being in exile, and the passage of Hebrews telling us that we have no home on earth would all be violated by trying to form a Christian Nation or Christian Commonwealth where we could feel comfortable congregating to live. So perhaps the New Testament precludes us from winning as Cline defines winning.

    Finally, in answering Cline’s question of what would we do if we win, we should first consider what those who preceded us did when they won. What are the fruits of Christendom? They do include 2 World Wars, religious wars, inquisitions by both Protestants and Roman Catholics, imperialism, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, religious persecution of others including fellow believers, along with other abuses and exploitation of people. And we need to consider Christendom’s two wayward half children: Critical Theory and Post Modernism, both of which tell some ugly truths about Christendom. Are we lacking necessary modesty by insisting that we can now do domination right?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *