Wednesday, 2 June 2010

More theonomy

The wheels grind slowly here. Mostly they grind fairly small.... my record for a delayed response to an e-mail was 2 1/2 years, but I got there.

But I do owe David M who posted a comment on an earlier post an apology, because it's sat in my inbox far too long. Here we go:
The question that I'm left with is: what's the Biblical basis for your view of the role of government? (By which I'm not trying to imply that I don't think there is one!)
Romans 13 has to be a key passage. One key principle is surely this one: "For there is no authority but from God" (v1). That means that government is a "positive" institution: the authority is a positive grant from God.

It follows from that that the question then becomes, "what authority has God granted to governments?" Because any other "authority" then seek to wield cannot be legitimate. When Peter said, "We must obey God rather than men", he showed that this authority grant was not unlimited.

Then the question has to become "what authority has God said in the Bible as being granted to governments?" Because it is inconceivable that God has given such important authority without telling us what it is, and the Bible is where God reveals his mind. How can he be a "servant of God" (v4) unless God gives him some instructions for his service?

Verses 3 and 4 also make clear the positive and negative side of the government's work. Positively, to reward what is good; negatively, to punish wrongdoing (and thereby cause fear in others to prevent them from doing it).

Of course, "good" and "evil" must also be defined by Scripture. The government should not arbitrarily decide, for example, that earning an un-approved of amount of money is an evil to be punitively taxed, or that sexual perversions are a good that needs lots of funding to promote and protect.

Also, it does not mean that all good and all evil are within the realm of government. Nobody should be imprisoned for original sin or unbelief, and the government should not break down your front door to make sure it rewards all the acts of kindness between brothers and sisters in the home or reduces taxes for believers. I believe in the idea of "sphere sovereignty" - God has instituted different authorities, family, church and state, and these are not a neat hierarchy with state at the top, but overlapping spheres.

The Old Covenant law can guide us, if we make due allowance for its unique nature as the Covenant between God and his theocratic nation. This is what the Reformers meant by the "general equity" of the law - it has useful and abiding principles. It is wrong to retain the theocratic clothing, but the principles remain.

One important thing is that there is no hint that the government's authority depends on the mode by which it gained power. If someone seizes the role in a sinful way, yet they still in fact hold the role (and will be accountable for what they do in it) - and holding the role is the bit that makes them have the authority, not the manner of gaining it. This is implicit in Romans 13:1, given the Roman government of the time - which gave Paul privileges we can see in Acts (e.g. Acts 25:11).

There's so much more to say. I think I should leave it to any commenters to decide where we want to go next. But essentially we are saying that the government's mandate is moral. Their laws are to be related meaningfully to the summary of the Mosaic Law, "love your neighbour as yourself" - though in our present context (evaluated Biblically), not that of Moses. They are not to be arbitrary impositions for other ends. This is the Biblical grant to governments.
In practice this looks/sounds something like: adultery is a terrible/wicked/immoral thing, but it isn't the job of the government to issue laws against it. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this is roughly where you land too.
In the past I would have agreed on this particular example, but now I don't. I do not think that the present UK government should have such a law, because ultimately (the big picture of Scripture shows us), law can only really be fulfilled on the foundation of free grace - the grace of the gospel. Without the gospel foundation, we cannot workably have proper law. (That sounds like pragmatism, but I think it is Biblical pragmatism based on the big picture of Scripture). But, in a society where the gospel had worked its leaven-like ways, I do think that adultery should be a crime, as indeed it was in the UK. Why? Because marriage is a public covenant, not a private one. Married households are intended to be the units of a godly society - they are not secret, hidden entities. Acts that directly attack that basis should be crimes.

But if we chose a different example, I could well agree. Being deliberately nasty to people is wrong, but should not be a crime if it falls short of violence, harassment or an incitement to violence. Not keeping your promises is wrong, but should not be a crime if it falls short of a contract or if no significant loss is sustained. Of course, there is work to do in deciding where the boundary lies, but you get the point.
The basic idea of theonomy, as I understand it, is that the civil/judicial parts of the Mosaic Law (according to the tripartite division a la Aquinas and Calvin) teach us what God expects from a government - which would extend its role beyond your view. (This is probably a naive/simplistic explanation, but hopefully not inaccurate.)
I suppose this depends on in what manner they "teach us" - what filters and lenses there are to be applied between the Mosaic context and ours. I think what I wrote above would be accepted under the label "theonomy", given that I said that all law should be justified meaningfully from Scripture. But the label seems to be used quite widely, and I am not very competent to answer a lot of questions because I need to do more of my own study...


David Morgan said...

Hi David,

Thank you for your reply - no need to apologise!

I suppose the big question that remains is how do we get from the context of Moses to our own? Both in terms of what should and shouldn't be legislated against, and in terms of appropriate punishment.

The obvious example would be homosexual acts: would it ever be appropriate for a gospel leavened society to outlaw them, and to make them punishable by death? If not, what makes things different now? (The obvious answer being, "It was a theocracy", but I don't quite see how that makes things different to a Godly government deciding on its laws).

I don't quite understand your comments about how gospel/grace relates to civil law. God's law is to be pursued by faith, is to be loved and is fulfilled by love, but is this really the same for civil law? Surely in this case external obedience is as good as any other? That would also fit better with my (limited!) understanding of the second use of the law. But I might be misinterpreting what you said...


David Anderson said...

Hi David,

How to get from Moses to here in particular details - I think that's a question for a book-length answer! But taking your particular example of homosexual acts, I think that these should be crimes. In the law of Moses these are specifically stated as "abomination to God", a specially heinous category into which very few things come. Sexual relationships have a public dimension (contrary to secularism), and supremely the state is intended to reward lifelong marriage and frown on everything else. The Bible is not ambiguous on homosexual acts' heinous nature, and impractical as it may be and unlikely as it may be to happen in the present context, I don't think that Christian law-makers should consider this one of those crimes which they should be quiet on until better times.

But I don't think that the death penalty could be appropriate in our context. We must remember that the severity of the Mosaic punishments were in part a function of Jehovah dwelling amongst them and the holy status of the land at that time, which must not be defiled, and a deliberate demonstration of God's justice and hence man's need for the gospel.

External obedience: yes, in fact this is all the government can or should command. I was rather thinking of dispensational concerns rather than meaning that the government is meant to legislate internals.

David Morgan said...

Thank you - very helpful.

Would you mind clarifying a couple of things, please?

1) (With reference to my first questions/your first answers: ) Why should governments ban homosexual acts, but not the public worship of false gods?

2) Did you mean that the death penalty could never be appropriate for any crimes in our context, or just for this example?

Sorry if I'm being dense!

Thanks, Dave

David Anderson said...

Hi David,

You're not being dense at all - I don't think I answered these questions. They're also not easy questions, needing a number of distinctions.

1) I thought of a few different angles of answering this question, not all of which seemed to make things clearer! Perhaps the simplest is simply to say that in the law of Moses, the regulation of idolatry was always directly connected to Israel's status as the covenant people, and to the status of the land as covenantally holy. Therefore, especially given the New Testament's silence, the default assumption is that the burden of proof lies on those who want to positively assert that idolatry is a concern of the state. And the arguments made seem to me convoluted and unsatisfactory.

Homosexual activity also needs some distinctions. Under the law of Moses, nobody died without two or three witnesses. There could be no "witch hunts" - evidence had to be produced up front, not extracted by coercion. It was pretty hard to die for this crime unless you willfully brought it out into the public sphere, and sought to undermine the (government-recognised and regulated) institution of marriage. So when I say that homosexuality should be a crime (because the regulation of the public side of sexual conduct does belong to the government: the government is within its remit to prevent child marriages, outlaw bigamy and bestiality, etc.) I am not suggesting that the government has authority to go beyond that private side and dig for evidence where it does not have it.

Now exactly when and where it crosses the public-private line is a difficult question, and is why we need Christian thinkers who can become politicians for Christian societies - my answer is of course quite general and raises many other knotty questions... but feel free to raise them so we can do some thinking together, I am enjoying being stretched.

2) I do believe the death penalty is appropriate for some crimes. When Romans 13 says that the state bears the sword on behalf of God, the obvious meaning is that it might use it - and not just for tickling people with. In particular I think that Genesis 9 teaches that God requires the death penalty to be exacted in the case of murder, for one.

Then there's the difficult question needing Christian thinkers to work hard on, of where the line is drawn. Personally I think that there's no question that rape and sexual abuse of children should both be capital crimes, but I have not thought deeply about where the line should come - it seems that in our present states of society, having to provide a Christian answer to this question seems quite far down the list of most urgent tasks at hand!

God bless,