Recently we discussed the possibility of a secular state, and I suggested at the possible limitations of the practicality of a “secular” state. I’d like to expand a bit more positively on the topic with this post.
I’ve gone back and forth on the issue of pacifism on this blog, and currently I’m not a pacifist (though I see that a lot of criticisms some pacifists, like Hauerwas and Cavanaugh, make of the modern political system are very valid). For Christians who agree with me, there is no excuse for avoiding deep reflection on the interface of our religion and our politics, since our religion does not allow us to consider politics, even violent politics, completely out of bounds.
Granted these two points (i.e., secularism is impractical, Christianity does not prohibit involvement in the judgments of the state), the spectre of theocracy is not in principle avoidable. I think all Christians nowadays would recognize there have been severe abuses of state power in the name of Christian religion, and thus would not agree that just any arrangement of religion and state would be a good idea. What would be most helpful is guidance from God about politics.
At this point, for those of a traditional evangelical, Catholic or Orthodox strain, appeal will probably eventually be made to the Old Testament as a possible basis for political ethics (this has been done frequently in the history of the Church; one excellent volume summarizing the history of Christian political thought is From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought by Oliver and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, which summarizes the history from the beginning of the post-apostolic church up until the beginning of the modern era (with Hugo Grotius)). In recent theology, this has been attempted by different groups and theologians: Reconstructionism (and other Reformed thinkers, including significantly the Kuyperian tradition), the Moral Majority, liberation theology, Christopher Wright, Oliver O’Donovan, and others.
There are various possible objections to this procedure, but I think the most pressing one for modern (postmodern?) citizens is the issue of religious freedom: if we grant that as Christians the OT in some way provides an ethical standard for modern states, does this imply that morality requires the end of religious freedom? As I said above, I think the vast majority of modern Christians would not want to go there. But the serious question is: does this method force us to anyway?
I think, helpfully, the answer is no. The most succinct and helpful explanation of why I have found recently has come from two thinkers: Vern Poythress and Oliver O’Donovan.
First, Poythress argues in his book, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses:
Deut. 13:1-18 instructs Israel on how to deal with false prophecy and seduction to false worship in its midst. A false prophet is to be put to death (13:5). Even if a member of your own family entices you to false worship, that person is not to be spared (verses 6-11). If a whole city goes astray into idolatry, the city is to be destroyed (verses 12-18). The guilty city is destroyed in the same way that the Israelites destroyed the Canaanite cities when they entered the land of Canaan: nothing at all is left (Deut. 13:15-17; exactly as in Deut. 7:2; 20:16-18; Josh. 6:21). The people are especially warned to keep away from the “cursed” things (Deut. 13:17; 7:26; Josh. 6:18). The special word herem (???) is used in these cases signifying items “consecrated to God for destruction.”
How are the general principles of just recompense operative here? First of all, the city committed to false worship is sinning against God. This sin like all other sins deserves destruction in hell. Those who attempt to destroy God will themselves be destroyed. But as usual, this type of observation does not help us to understand how the Israelite recompense for this crime differs from the recompense for any other crime. We should therefore ask the question whether any human beings are injured in addition to the direct insult against God. The passage itself indicates that a “detestable thing has been done among you” (verse 14), suggesting that the people are polluted by the idolatry among them. The related verses concerning small-scale rebellion have a similar note: “so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you” (verse 5); “all Israel shall hear, and fear, and never again do any such wickedness as this among you” (verse 11). The city becomes a “whole burnt offering” (verse 16), which certainly suggests that a purification is taking place in the process.
We conclude, then, that the city engaging in false worship has committed an offense against Israel, not merely against God. False worship within the land of Palestine pollutes the people. As in the case of theft and other crimes, the proper recompense involves two aspects. (1) Restoration: the guilty city is responsible to restore Israel to purity; and (2) punishment: the guilty city is to suffer the same penalty in the reverse direction. The destruction of the city accomplishes both aspects simultaneously. First, the city functions as a whole burnt offering (verse 16). Those who offer the offering, namely the people of Israel, are purified by the act of offering. This act not only removes the evil from among them but also signifies a penal substitution: the city bears the penalty that otherwise Israel would bear. Second, since the city has polluted Israel, Israel must in reverse fashion pollute the city. Since the city has already suffered a first radical pollution by its act of idolatry, the only way for Israel to bring further pollution on it is by utter destruction. Cases dealing with individuals rather than whole cities involved in false worship (verses 1-11) are to be understood along the same lines. The discussion is less elaborate, but we can assume that the same principles are operative.
The logic of the penalty against false worship in the OT was that of holy war, which is clearly distinguished from non-holy war by the things commanded of the Israelites (complete destruction versus restraints, etc.). Insofar as the church is not permitted to execute holy war, then, these laws do not apply in the present dispensation of history. And there are plenty of good reasons for thinking this is the case, many of which Poythress gives later in the same chapter quoted above (and in an index of the same book dealing with theonomy).
One of the ways I have understood the difference between the dispensation of the Torah and the current period in redemptive history, though, is as it was explained to me by Oliver O’Donovan: the Christian church now lives under the shadow of the final judgment, and thus there is no more room for political (in the sense of violent) judgment in the church. Excommunication is understood as a provisional witness to the final judgment, its provisionality being evident in the fact that its goal/hope is ultimately restoration, even though it clearly is meant to symbolize an irrevocable judgment. (This understanding of the relation of church to politics is found in four of O’Donovan’s books: Resurrection and Moral Order, The Bonds of Imperfection, The Desire of Nations, and The Ways of Judgment).
Another, perhaps simpler way to understand the relation of the current era to the era of the law is in the words of Paul in Ephesian 6:11-12s: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the comsic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Another simple way of understanding the difference could be found in Jesus’ words to Pilate in John 18:36. (I don’t think the “render unto Caesar” passage is as helpful as some make it out to be, since Jesus is most likely be ironic in many ways; he’s not intending to give plain teaching on the subject, but rather outsmarting those asking him a trick question.)
Thus, granting that this objection to the idea of OT-based political ethics can be met, I h0nestly wonder if there is any reason not to pursue in depth the kind of projects that people like the Reconstructionists, and in a different way people like Christopher Wright, have attempted. If God has given us revealed guidance about politics, why would we not listen?