Truth Project 9: The State (Whose Law?)

In tour nine of the Truth Project, Del looks at the State. He begins with a definition of politics from the first edition of Webster’s dictionary, 1828:

The science of government; that part of ethics which consists in the regulation and government of a nation or state, for the preservation of its safety, peace and prosperity; comprehending the defense of its existence and rights against foreign control or conquest … and the protection or its citizens in their rights, with the preservation and improvement of their morals.”

Del then asks his audience whether the state can steal. He sets out to give his answer to this question by telling the story of a couple who had worked throughout their lives on a farm, and when the husband died the state took half of their property. He also gives an example from 1 Kings 21, where King Ahab and Jezebel had Naboth killed so they could take his vineyard. God, speaking through Elijah the prophet, calls this murder and theft. So, Del says, the state can steal.

Then Del gives another example from Daniel 4:29-35, telling the story of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar looks out over his kingdom and swells with pride at how he built it all himself, and God judges him for his pride by making him live like an animal for a while. Del asks, “Who is in control here?” The answer is that God is sovereign over kings, and he cites several Bible verses (Proverbs 16:9-10, Proverbs 21:1, Daniel 2:21, Romans 9:17) to that effect.

Del then turns to the question of what the sphere of the state is supposed to look like. He refers to 1 Samuel 8 and asks why Israel asked for a king. Del’s answer is that it was because their leadership (at that time, Samuel’s sons) was corrupt and they wanted to change their form of leadership. Samuel then warned them that if they got a king, that king would take what belongs to God. This is a warning, says Del, that they would become as slaves.

So is the king sovereign over every sphere? Del turns to Abraham Kuyper and Neo-Calvinism’s notion of “sphere sovereignty” to explain this. Basically, sphere sovereignty is the idea that each sphere of life (e.g. the state, the church, the family, labor) has its own responsibilities and authority, and stands equal to other spheres of life (to paraphrase Wikipedia). The question is whether the state has sovereignty over other spheres. Del cites 2 Chronicles 26, the story of King Uzziah going into the temple to burn incense (and being punished with leprosy for it), as an example of the state (the king) meddling with the church (the temple). “This idea of sphere sovereignty,” Del sums up, “is critical to God.” This is why, in cowboy movies set in the Old West, criminals running from a posse can run into a church and the posse can’t follow them in. The churches exist outside the state’s sovereignty.

Then Del cites Romans 13:1-6, pulling out three main ideas: authority, submission and purpose of the state. Del says that delegation of authority is found within the nature of God (John 17:1-2, 1 Corinthians 15:24, 27-28), and various forms of submission are found in the Bible (wives “subject” to their husbands, bondslaves “subject” to their masters, people “subject” to their rulers, all in Titus 2-3). Christians have the duty to pay taxes, respect and honor to the civil magistrate (Romans 13:7, 1 Peter 2:17). The purpose of the state is to punish evil and condone good. The state (in the form of the civil magistrate), says Del, is an agent of God’s wrath. If the state doesn’t know the basis for calling something good or evil, then good becomes whatever is in the state’s best interests.

Del expands on this theme of the state doing what is in its own best interests by talking about pathologies that we have seen develop in various states throughout history. “The problem with pathologies in this sphere,” Del says, “is that they end in mass graves.” The one pathology that Del pays the most attention to is the rise of the state, when the state removes God and takes over sovereignty of other spheres. Del says that without God, this rise of the state continues until we have a global state.

Del concludes that one of the attributes that marked the Roman Empire at its end was an increased desire to live off the state. Del returns to 1 Samuel 8 to say that when we look to the state (or a king) for our salvation and guidance, we are rejecting God.

Del certainly covered a lot in this tour, and as is the case much of the time, I liked a lot of what he said. I agree with Del that God is sovereign over the state and that it is possible for the state to steal. I also agree that one of the effects of a loss of reliance on the transcendent God is that might makes right. There becomes no standard other than self-interest. And I also agree that in our sinful world, the state tends to aggrandize itself.

But as one person in my discussion group put it, I like it when Del is speaking directly from the Bible, but when he doesn’t, not as much. In this tour, he tacitly endorsed the standard conservative American emphases of small government and property rights. In fact, much of this tour was standard conservative fare. Now, it may be possible to make a biblical argument for such things as property rights and limited government, but Del doesn’t make that argument. And any time Christianity is presented as being compatible with a non-Christian ideology (as conservatism is—and liberalism, too), red flags go up for me. Christians may well be on the same side of certain issues as followers of ideologies, but when Christianity is aligned with an ideology without tension and without remainder, that is a major no-no.

Also, he accepted it as a given that sphere sovereignty is there in the Bible and that this is the way all Christians should view various spheres of life. However, not all Christians think that sphere sovereignty is self-evidently the way Christians ought to view the world. Del’s example from 2 Chronicles 26, in particular, can be explained in another way than appealing to sphere sovereignty. Del implies that the reason why King Uzziah broke out in leprosy was because God wanted to keep the spheres of government and religion separate. But as 2 Chronicles 26:16 says, the great sin of Uzziah was pride. He was overstepping his bounds, for sure, but the reason God was angry with him was because he did not think he needed to be consecrated (as the priests were) to offer incense. I don’t think that this would have been a problem if it had gone the other way, or if Uzziah had not been proud. I think of Samuel, in particular, who was a priest but who was intimately involved in the governance of Israel. I also think of David, who was king but danced before the Lord wearing a linen ephod (a priestly garment). At another point in David’s life, he and his men ate consecrated bread that was meant only for priests (1 Samuel 21). David was not condemned for either of these ventures outside of his “sphere.” There doesn’t seem to be as much biblical support for sphere sovereignty as Del would have us believe.

Sphere sovereignty is certainly a legitimate concept through which Christians may interpret the world, but I’m saying that it’s not self-evidently the only biblical one (for example, Catholics have an idea called subsidiarity, which says that a matter should be handled by the smallest authority capable of handling it effectively). Del misleads us when he acts as if sphere sovereignty is the only game in town.

Other than that, this was a good tour. Del’s warning at the end about the dangers of the expansion of the state and the desire to live off the state being a mark of a dying culture was perhaps too apocalyptic for my tastes. I think, for example, about the context of Romans 13. When Paul was writing, the “state” that he was talking about was the Roman Empire. I doubt whether Paul agreed fully with its ideas of what was good and what was evil. If Paul can write “let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” about the Roman Empire, of all things, I think that Del’s apocalyptic language is a bit overblown. If Paul wants Roman Christians to submit to the rulers of the pagan Roman Empire, how come Del is so agitated about modern states, in many of which Christians at least have a political voice? I don’t want to speculate about what Del’s own politics might be, but I can’t help but wonder whether he has political interests that shape the stark language he uses at the end of this tour.


4 thoughts on “Truth Project 9: The State (Whose Law?)

  1. Interesting. I’m taking Hans’ theology of culture class right now, and one of his critiques of sphere sovereignty is that it too easily takes the spheres (the state especially) as ‘given’, immutable, timeless, etc., while making the church just one among many. It sounds like Del goes along and takes Kuyper’s idea as a ‘given’ too. But your group sounds pretty astute. Is that the end of the course?

  2. Michael,

    No, it’s not the end of the course yet. There are three more sessions. I’m working on writing up the next session right now, which is on the United States. It will be a long one.

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