November 28, 2014

Thoughts on Political Theory and it’s Development

By In Articles, Philosophy, Political Theory

If one has not seen my full analysis of Romans 13, you can read that here.  I look at the passage with the explicit recognition that it was written in a certain context, under the reign of one of history’s worst authoritarian empires.  It is not meant to offer a complete political theory and the “ideal government.”  It was meant to help its readers understand that God has everything under control and the evil powers that he establishes are answerable to him. I have also had some more considerations that are worth sharing on the nature of a difficult passage.  The passage is not difficult because it poses some especially worrisome challenges to the Reformed Libertarian, but for hundreds of years Reformed and non-Reformed Christians have fought (perhaps literally) over its meaning.  How groups of people throughout history have interpreted it has changed entire societies and governments as well.

One of the most difficult challenges is the fact that, as political theory has developed over time, our vocabulary has not only shifted in its use, but we have also become (for the better, I think) more specific in our definitions.  As political theorists –both secular and religious — have debated these themes, things have gotten much more detailed and specific. Unfortunately in my estimation, this poses a serious obstacle for Christians and theologians who wish to consider these matters, but refuse to consider the way in which government theory has developed since, say, the writing of the Confessions. No new doctrines or ideas can render the eternal word of God irrelevant or false, but as individuals over history debate and challenge each other, new theoretical ideas are developed which we must face if we are to answer all the relevant questions of government and a free society.

For instance, the Particular Baptists of the 18th century were key in the eventual creation of the American republic.  It was Particular Baptist Isaac Backus who wrote a draft for the Massachusetts Bill of Rights in 1779 (a full ten years before the Federal Bill of Rights was even created), which included the following:

All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, among which are the enjoying and defending of life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

(Backus’ draft was was ultimately rejected by the Presbyterians in power at the time –Backus was a Baptist — and this shouldn’t be interpreted as a potshot against Presbyterians, only a comment on the contributions to American liberty that the Baptists offered and the challenges which they faced).

Also included in Backus’ Bill of Rights were the familiar ideas of the necessity of trial by jury, the freedom from unlawful search and seizure, the freedom of speech, and the right to bear arms.  Clearly Backus had benefitted from the political theory of John Locke and Thomas Paine and other pre-revolutionary writers and theorists.  These ideas, which contributed to American liberty, are several steps from the progress made by John Calvin and Martin Luther.  And since Backus wrote these words, many more contributions have been added.

From the time of the writing of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 London Baptist Confession, the ideas of political theory were to develop at rapid speed and various Christian theologians and Pastors in both Europe and America saw it prudent to keep up with this development and apply what was good and perhaps dismiss what was bad.  In the same way, political theory –and not to mention the value-free science of economics — has developed in the 19th and 20th centuries and we must not completely ignore it, lest we ignore what can ultimately be useful for our understanding of the nature of liberty, property, the state, and related issues.  All of ethics are grounded in the commands of God, which are known by reading his Word.  But a good Biblical hermeneutic doesn’t reject the necessity of apriori logic.  We, created in the image of God, are rational beings, and therefore we must apply deductive logic to Biblical principles. This is why the WCF Ch 1 states: The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.

So then, we live in a time where we have access to the thoughts of a great many intellectuals who have labored to precisely define terms, specify the meaning of various historical political phrases, and apply a robust logic to matters of property, liberty, and state.  To ignore these developments is to refuse to address the specificity of today’s questions of political theory.  Often, conservative Christians (of which I am one) like to exclaim that we have a “right to property,” we have a “right to bear arms,” and so forth.  But what is a “right” precisely? I believe we have rights. But perhaps not enough of us know how to define a right and understand the challenges involved in our post-progressivist age where people also allegedly have a “right” to health care and same-sex marriage. If we have a right to property, why do we not have a right to higher education or cell phones?  Who can answer this?  If we refuse to consider any political theory development since the time of the Confessions (to which I heartily subscribe), we may not have the phraseology and ideological ammunition to address these problems in a meaningful way.

What is meant by the State?  What is meant by government?  Are these words synonymous? How do these relate to courts and police, if at all?  How does the individual relate to the State? Is there a difference between the State and society?  Are we a member of both?

Can the State own property? How does the State acquire property and is it on the same moral level as the acquisition of property by a private firm?  What is the difference between the means of wealth of, say, Microsoft versus the United States federal government?  Is there a moral and economic difference between the means of wealth of Lockheed Martin versus McDonalds?

What is the definition of a criminal?  Is this different from the definition of a sinner?  What is a victim? Must crimes have a victim?  Can the State itself be a victim?  Can society be a victim?  Can a victim choose to forgive, or must the State always and in every instance seek to punish, ignoring the victim himself?

What shall we say of societies that successfully produced laws, courts, and dispute resolution –even criminal prosecution — without the State?  Are these societies to looked down upon because, even though there was no monopolization of the aggressive use of force in society (a necessary characteristic of the “state”), civil “government” was produced “on the free market” in an ethically consistent manner (the ethical question) and it actually produced good results (the utilitarian or “pragmatic” question).  If God ordains “the powers that be” (does he not also ordain the devil himself?), does this logically imply that God’s moral commands are not applicable to these very powers?

Are those who work within the State apparatus exempt from the eternal moral law of God?  Or are God’s moral laws applicable to every person in the same way?  Is the State therefore allowed to do things which are not allowed of the citizen?  If so, is this “allowance” an allowance according to God’s objective standards or an allowance granted by the State unto itself? Does the State have the moral legitimacy of giving to itself and its members an entirely different standard of conduct than God has declared binding for all of humanity?  Is the State morally allowed to prohibit competition from private arbitrators and property protection services?

These are all questions that have developed after the Reformation and the continuation of that reformation in western Europe and finally in the New World.  And they have been wonderfully answered by great minds.  Often, we have a tendency to think that if a certain political thinker was not a Christian, there is nothing to be gleaned from him.  But even the father of the theocratic Christian Reconstructionism (which I reject), RJ Rushdoony, accepted the brilliant economic theory of atheist Ludwig von Mises and considered Albert Nock’s (himself not a Christian) rejection of the State to be beneficial on a number of levels, even if he did not accept it on the whole.  We cannot reject certain propositions as false just because the speaker has philosophically foundational flaws.  This is irrational. The idea that murder is wrong is not suddenly false just because one who holds to that idea is not a Christian. Sure, the justification for that idea might need correction, but much can be learned by understanding the logical and development of various studies of the nature of the State.

More Christians need to step out of the modern false paradigm of “GOP vs. Democrat” and step into the world of political theory. They need to consider the contributions of important scholars like Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard.  They should read the fiery essays of the “Old Right” including Garet Garrett, Frank Chodorov, and John T Flynn.  They may not come to the same conclusions as I do. But perhaps they will understand the questions at stake and the good answers that have been developed in pursuit of a logically and morally consistent answer.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to