December 27, 2014

A Deficient Understanding of the State Leads to a Deficient Political Theory

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

One of the most challenging aspects to writing the blogs on this site is the fact that there is a disconnect between some of my audience and myself in regards to understanding the precise nature of political theory, law, and civil government.  Many of the libertarian readers, especially those who came to libertarianism through the Mises Institute, understand these things quite well. But the other half of my readership, those Christians who are only secondarily interested in political theory, have a gaping hole in regards to the roots of political conversation.  This represents a monumental challenge, because to use the phraseology and themes of the Misesian/Rothbardian tradition is to distance myself from those who are yet unfamiliar with what libertarianism really has to offer.

Most modern theologians have completely ignored the developments of political theory since the dawn of socialism in the 19th century.  Seeing Adam Smith as the beginning and end of the defense of free trade, they neglect the roots of free market theory stretching back to Augustine and beyond.  And after Smith, there came the Marginal Revolution, which provided the ground work for the eminent price theorist Eugene Bohm-Bawerk and his more famous student Ludwig von Mises.

And the theologians may praise the developments in Christian political theory from Calvin to Rutherford, and later from Rutherford to the nonconformist Puritans, and, if they are really radical, from the noncomformists to the American Reformed Baptists; but rarely do they consider the logically driven improvements since that time.  And this is completely reasonable in one sense; namely, for the Pastor and Theologian, getting the gospel right is far more important than getting political theory right.  The gospel is about what saves man from the wrath of God; political theory is a consideration of the proper use of violence in society and is a subset of ethics.  However, if the Theologian is to comment on political theory –because surely the Bible which defines our ethical standard does have things to say on the matter– it would be a tragedy if he was not familiar with what is at stake. In my estimation, most Pastors and Theologians don’t understand what questions to ask in their seeking of answers.  This is because they have simply not considered the developments of political theory.  Interestingly, this is also why so many modern Pastors misunderstand the doctrines of Christian Reconstructionism and Bahnsenite theonomy, with which I have my own disagreements.

The challenge that the above leads me to is the fact that I disagree with some of the most important theological voices of our time on matters of economics and politics.  To be in disagreement with these great men is a bit awkward. Because here I am claiming that the Reformed Libertarian vision is the most consistent political theory with the Bible, and yet I am at odds with the most authoritative theological voices on technical matters of political theory!  Now, I am certainly not at odds with them in total; and in fact, with the divide between practical and theoretical political philosophy, am probably very close in the “practical” category.  Moreover, most of their comments on the theoretical side is broad and not well defined, which means that I can interact with it and express where it is good and where it is not so good. This plays in my favor. When one gets down into details and definitions of political theory, an entire new world opens.  It’s quite delightful.

I say all the above after reading a section of Dr. John Cobin’s book called Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian Perspective.  I think he and I have a lot in common.  He is a very orthodox Reformed Baptist who takes both the Bible and the 1689 Confession seriously.  And he is a staunch follower of the Austrian School of Economics.  Moreover, he is very Rothbardian in his political philosophy.  All of which tells me one thing: he understands what is at stake in these matters.  He understands the problems that Christians need to answer in developing a political theory.  About halfway through the book, he interacts with the comments of Sam Waldron in his 1689 Confession exposition on the subject of the civil magistrate.  Cobin clearly reveres Pastor Waldron, as do I, and feels the weight of disagreeing, in some areas, with such an important voice in Reformed Baptist circles.

The problem lies in the fact that there is a widespread deficiency of understanding regarding the nature of the State, the monopolization of the role of governance in society.  With the awareness that Austro-libertarianism brings to the table regarding economic incentives, monopoly theory, human action, the division of labor, the problem of knowledge in society, and all the rest, we are able to understand in a unique way the nature of the Roman Empire as it existed over Paul and the early church.  The theologians of today, those that are interested in matters of political theory, should be willing to read the developments of the Austrian school.

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
  • He would make for a fascinating interview *nudge nudge* 🙂

    • reformedlibertarian

      He sure would! I can talk to him about it.

  • Isn’t what you’re suggesting an abandonment of sola scriptura? Surely 16th and 17th century reformed theologians were not influenced by the political philosophy of their day

    • reformedlibertarian

      No, just pointing out that just as there’s been development about the definition of the state, rights, property, and other related concepts from, say, Calvin to the Confession’s writers, so there has been development from 1689 to Isaac Backus. And also from Backus to Machen and from Machen to Robbins. I only hope people keep up with these developments. Not find truth in some other source besides Scripture.

      • I agree, I was just trying to tease out an observation from you: reformed theologians were influenced by the political philosophy of their day so we shouldn’t look back to them as the pinnacle of political philosophy informed by nothing other than reading Scripture. Waldron’s lectures on the history of church and state do a good job of demonstrating that point (even if he isn’t necessarily up to speed on developments since the 17th century)

        Also, I’ve been aware of Cobin’s book from very early on in my libertarian days, but I never bothered to actually read it (don’t judge a book by its cover I suppose). Is it worth reading?

        • reformedlibertarian

          Haha, yeah, the cover looked a little cheesy and I wasn’t sure at first. But I had read some lengthy quotes by him and decided to give it a shot. I think he does a very good job. He is also a Clarkian presuppositionalist who takes the Bible as the unprovable first and final authority on all matters dealing with things like ethics and knowledge. So that was attractive. And throughout, he only really interacts with very orthodox Reformed theologians, given that he is a 1689 Baptist. I think he answers that majority of problems relating to the State in a similar way I would. It was definitely a beneficial read, even if only for the fact that it reinforced my understanding of things. It is really interesting to see him interact with many of the Reformed and Reformed Baptist blogs that are in our rss feeds.

        • reformedlibertarian

          He sees his book as being a Reformed alternative to the suggestions offered by the recent rise of the Reconstructionists.