November 30, 2014

On God’s Ordaining the State

By In Articles, Society and Culture

In another place, I have commented on the necessity of differentiating between government and the State by explaining the following:

If I were to summarize the distinction between the role of government and the institution of the State, I would follow the tradition of Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Nock, and more recently by Stephen Kinsella in noting that government rightly acts coercively in upholding justice in response to a crime; and the State wrongly acts coercively to systematically contradict justice and [itself] act criminally.  When Augustine observed that, “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms,” he was contributing to the logical necessity of dividing between coercive bodies which pursue justice and coercive bodies which are inherently at odds with justice.  For how can two bodies which act in opposite ways both be considered substantially the same?

We must “distinguish between the economic (peaceful and productive) and the political (coercive and parasitic) means of wealth acquisition” (to quote Hans Hoppe).  Following the definitions provided above, government may be used to refer to the non-state role in society of maintaining law and justice and thereby supporting and acting consistently with the “economic means” of interaction between individuals. Conversely, if the State is used as defined above, then it is “a vast engine of institutionalized crime and aggression, the “organization of the political means” to wealth, [and] this means that the State is a criminal organization.” (Rothbard)  This is all tautology, true by definition alone.

The Bible itself doesn’t refer to this exact distinction.  In the New Testament it merely refers to rulers and authorities, and in every instance in the context of encouraging the Christian to arrange himself under that authority for the sake of the peace.  Christians must understand that the kingdom of heaven is not to come by means of overthrowing the established authority.  The precise nature of its coming is the great debate of eschatology but in any case Caesar’s throne is not the throne on which Christ will sit.

Now, the great point of Romans 13:1-7 (which I’ve analyzed in detail here) and other important passages with similar themes such as 1 Peter 2:13-17 is that God reigns supreme even above the various governments that exercise authority throughout the world.  Perhaps some of these governments are more preferable than others; a lot can be said about the tyranny of the United States empire, yet I would be lying if I claimed I preferred the despotism of Mao Zedong.  God is supreme above all these governments, and yet, the nature of God’s sovereignty runs even deeper than this; for not only is he supreme above them, but he as in fact ordained their existence in time and space.  All that is, is because God has declared those things to be.

When we talk about the nature of the State and the nature of God’s ordaining the State, we can often remain too imprecise.  But let’s apply some logic.  God ordains everything that is; the State is; therefore, God ordains the State.  This is true, even in light of the fact that the State, as defined above, contradicts the preceptive will of God.  Now, I am completely aware that not everyone, especially in historical theology, uses state in a way that is different than “government” generally.  But the difference between the definitions above is plain and unavoidable and I was in need of a word to label each definition.  My understanding of the essence State is consistent with the political works of essayists like Albert Nock and perhaps even more convincingly the Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld in his sweeping work “The Rise and Decline of the State.”

Now, it is agreed, especially by the Calvinist, that there is nothing that has not been ordained by God.  The existence of evil itself is not exempt from such a sweeping declaration.  To say then that the State was ordained by God cannot be said to be itself proof of the State’s moral goodness.  We must apply the standard of right and wrong in the Bible, summarized by the Ten Commandments, to determine whether there is anything that the State does by its very nature in systematic contradiction to this moral (or natural) law.

Saying that the State is a divine institution misses the point.  Everything is a divine institution because everything has been instituted by God.  Some might respond by noting that a difference between a man made and God made institution should be considered here.  But this also is a failure to consider that a man made institution merely refers to the means which God has ordained to accomplish his will.  Can man make something that God did not first will the man to make?  This very thought challenges the Calvinist creed.

Some states arise by conquest and others by deceitful slogans and immoral promises.  But no matter the means of the state’s rising, nothing is outside of God’s hand.  God pursues various ends by various means.  We believe that it is not only the ends which God ordains, but the means also.  What man intends for evil, God intends for good; that is, his good purpose (a necessary interpretation in light of America’s various “Joel Osteens”).  God desires to use all sorts of evil to bring glory to himself.

It is in various other places that we analyze the “Anatomy of the State,” as Murray Rothbard put it and anyone who is interested in understand what the state is, and what it is not, is encouraged to start with that linked essay.  As for now though, we will admit our position is that the state is evil. For those uncomfortable with such a claim, the apparent radicalism of this statement can be forgiven by considering a quote from Gordon H. Clark on the matter:

“This answers a question which is occasionally raised in political discussion as to whether the state is a positive good or essentially an evil. The Christian answer is that the state is not a positive or unconditional good, but rather a necessary evil. To do justice to the Christian view, one must insist on both adjective and noun. The state is an evil not only because of the abuse of power by the magistrates, but also because it interferes with freedom and introduces an unnatural superiority among men.”

Whether it is necessary or not is a subject for another time, and such a conversation requires both nuance and patience (especially in light of our distinction between State and government), but it is important that for now, we see the state as it really is: something that would not exist if Adam had not disobeyed God.

Now then, assuming that the State is evil and also assuming that God has ordained the State, what is our response to it?  My answer is quite similar to John Piper’s when he sought to tackle the question “How can we hate what is evil if God has ordained it to happen?”  This question and its answer applies perfectly to our scenario. Unfortunately, Reformed Christian thinkers since the time of the American Revolution have largely ignored the development of political theory by libertarians and paleo-conservatives and therefore have a seriously underdeveloped and underwhelming understanding of the nature of the state and its relationship to society.  That aside, Piper’s answer is quite fantastic indeed and we can simply refer to it in our quest to determine how we can think of the State.

I don’t disagree that we should hate the horrific evil that is in the world. We should hate Satan’s designs to destroy people, even though God could snatch Satan out of this world in a minute. He could take him away. He is clearly willing that there should be a Satan, otherwise he would destroy him in a minute. Therefore the fact that Satan is there by God’s permission and design does not reduce my hatred of Satan, because God ordains that I hate Satan. In fact, one of the reasons he leaves Satan marauding in the world is precisely so that there would be an occasion for me to declare myself to be morally against evil. If there were no evil there then that kind of dynamic wouldn’t even happen.

See my article “God Glorified in the Evils of Statism.”  Earlier on in Piper’s answer, he states:

You can hate something and consider it evil and yet still see it as an expression of God’s will.

God has ordained the State, wherever it does exist. This is a logical necessity.  But it is not implied in this that those communities that have developed without the State in history are to be condemned. In fact they should be considered with great enthusiasm! In Terry Anderson and Peter Hill’s analysis of the Western Frontier, they noticed that protection services, courts, dispute resolution, and criminal prosecution (the conglomeration of which we can refer to as “government,” but certainly not “the state”) were all provided “on the market” and peacefully.  If one of those services were given by a provider who did a poor job, people stopped using their services and other service providers entered the market.  The competition was helpful for the society. The service fees were low and falling, property rights were defined, contracts were vital, and, as it turns out contrary to Federal government propaganda in later years throughout the “public schools,” the “wild west” wasn’t so wild after all.

While that scenario is certainly more attractive and consistent with libertarian political theory, the fact of that matter is that we live in the era of the State.  It surrounds us at every point.  The State has declared itself to be the God of the land. And yet, not one blade of grass remains unknown to God. Being pilgrims in this imperfect world, we submit and await the coming of the true king.  In the meantime, we ought to be vocal and speak truth into the lives of those participants in statism. We should always explain why what the State is doing is both morally wrong and economically disastrous. In arranging ourselves under their rulership and not seeking to overthrow by violent revolution, even if it might be considered tyrannical, we are attempting to live peaceably in the midst of a dangerous institution.  We ought to share the gospel truth with all who listen and understand that a time may be coming when the gospel is outlawed.  Caesar exercised tyranny over the first century church and yet Peter and Paul said to turn the other cheek.  In following this good advice, we do not vindicate the State’s deeds, but suffer through them.  Vengeance belongs to the Lord and we have been saved from his almighty wrath.  That is the best news of all.

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 reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Seth

    It is interesting that you have hit upon the one point I have found I disagree with Clark on, namely his categorical defining of the state as a necessary evil. Of course I agree that “the abuse of power by the magistrates” is evil, but I do not believe his second point (“because it interferes with freedom and introduces an unnatural superiority among men.”) necessarily makes it evil. First, other things (particularly parenthood) interfere with freedom, and yet those things are not necessarily evil. Therefore simply interfering with evil does does not necessarily make something evil. Likewise, many things (sports, work and even the church) introduce an unnatural superiority among men (assuming I understand what Clark meant by “unnatural”), and yet these are not necessarily evil. For Clark’s definition to be true, he (or you) would need to prove that anything that interferes with freedom and anything that introduces an unnatural superiority among men is evil. This has not been done, nor, simply in light of the examples I’ve given, can be done. Second, while it is true that the state is “something that would not exist if Adam had not disobeyed God.”, this does not make it a necessary evil unless again, anything that exists due to Adam’s fall is necessarily evil. But again, parental discipline wouldn’t exist without Adam’s fall. Nor clothes. Are these also necessary evils? But even if one does accept that those are necessary evils, it still remains to deduce the idea that anything that exists because of the Fall is evil. I do not believe the necessary propositions exist in Scripture. Third and finally, the Bible defines government as “God’s servant for your good.”

    Rather than a necessary evil, the state is, because of Adam’s Fall, a necessary good. God, in His great mercy, because of the sorry state of men, has provided a just and good way of restraining evil – the state. Of course this may be (and has been) distorted and abused, but this is true of every one of God’s good gifts (sex, parenthood, work, play, etc.).

    I believe there is a confusion in “necessary evil”, “necessary good” and what I will call “essential good” or “creation good”. Government is not an essential/creation good, in that it existed in the creation order (as headship and parenthood did), but is rather a necessary good in the same way that the Incarnation is a necessary good. Had man never fallen, neither would have been necessary, but because of the Fall, government, in a similar but lesser degree, is a necessary good like the Incarnation. The Incarnation is not an essential/creation good, but to argue that it is a necessary evil seems to rip Christianity apart at the seams.

    All that said, I believe the article makes an important point and may be very helpful to many people.

    • reformedlibertarian

      There are actually a lot of previous definitions that must be assumed in order to defend the “second point” which which you disagree. Freedom is not defined as the ability to do whatever you want. That is the libertine, not Austro-libertarian understanding of freedom. While Clark is no political philosopher and I am certainly more libertarian than he was, he has a similar view as I do on the relationship between the State (which is the institution of coercion in society) and freedom (which can be grasped in part by reading my article here: http://reformedlibertarian.com/articles/philosophy/libertarianism-as-propertarianism-2/ )

      Not only is parenthood not defined as “unnatural,” but it is also legitimate because the parent is the custodian of the child until the child is ready to be completely responsible for himself, and the State is never granted the authority to be custodians over our lives. The only legitimate role of the use of aggression of body and property that the government may play is in response to a crime.

      “Therefore simply interfering with evil does not necessarily make something evil.” Agreed. It is completely legitimate even for the private citizen to prevent an armed robbery he sees in action in the alleyway.

      “Likewise, many things (sports, work and even the church) introduce an unnatural superiority among men (assuming I understand what Clark meant by “unnatural”)” You misunderstand him and his definition. These are all completely natural, legitimate, and healthy. Only the Progressive, left-libertarians would disagree with us here.

      I think part of the problem here is that you don’t yet appear to understand the nature and definition of the State. You can’t really get it from Clark’s writings alone. You have to read much more of the Austro-libertarian tradition to know where I am coming from. The State is not a “necessary good” (to take your phrase) because it is the institution of contradiction of the moral law of God (http://reformedlibertarian.com/blog/editor/important-difference-between-the-state-and-government/). The State is unique as an institution in society because it is the only one that was built of theft and aggression, compared to everything else that was built on voluntary and peaceful exchange. The State cannot exist without first taking money from citizens without their permission and neither can it exist without also forcefully and immorally preventing other government services from entering the “law and order” market. The State creates a self-imposed monopoly on its services, and never in the Bible does God command it to do so.

      This conversation can only continue if you understand where I am coming from. You have to understand the definition of the State as an institution. It should not be defined as “the punisher of crimes or the protector of the people’s rights” because A) it itself acts in a way that it does not allow all others to act according to law and B) because actual free market government services which were not States have arisen in the past and done those things which the State claims to do without any of the hypocrisy inherent in the State apparatus. The claims that I make here in this article are based on logically preceding definitions and arguments. As of yet, we have differing conceptions of the “anatomy of the state” which is Murray Rothbard’s phrase, and can be found in this essay here: http://mises.org/sites/default/files/Anatomy%20of%20the%20State_3.pdf

      Do you think it was a necessary evil that Christ was murdered?