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  • Director’s Dicta: Wither the State:  Savior, Suspect, or Servant???
  • Director’s Dicta: Wither the State:  Savior, Suspect, or Servant???

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    March 11, 2024

    “Lies that Live” – Part 5

    By Dr. Jeffery J Ventrella

    “We have no king but Caesar”[1]

    “Especially those of Caesar’s household”[2]

    “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”[3]

    God the Creator is a God of purpose, design, and order.  His Creation is structured and ordered[4] and He requires the collective conduct of those worshipping Him to be done “decently and in order.”[5]  What about society in general beyond the ecclesiastical realm?  Here’s a hint:  After liberating His enslaved people, God gave them law to structure and order society.[6]  Liberty evidently requires order and structure, not radical autonomy with unfettered “freedom,”[7] or anarchy.  This raises the question:  What is the role of the State?  If Caesar is the only king, should Caesar be functionally imbued with God-like attributes reaching, regulating, and even redeeming every crevice of society?   Alternatively, if Caesar is not the only king, should Christians just ignore or even despise the State?  How should we view the State and its role today?  Is it Savior, Suspect, or Servant?  Lies that live distort the answers to these questions.  Let’s get to the gist.

    The State as Savior?

    No pious Christian would ever crassly confess that the State is Savior; only Christ is savior, Yet, our conduct can often betray our confession.  Here’s a thought experiment:  Imagine a disaster, any disaster:  Hurricane, tornado, wildfire, floods, pandemic, et al – anytime these occur, the knee jerk reaction functionally looks to the State to remedy the situation.  And, even when not facing an emergent situation – education, health care, housing, poverty, inflation, social media, et al, the “first call” for solving societal issues seems to be the State, and in reality, its taxpayers.  

    Increasingly, the gut reaction of many citizens looks to the State to fix things.  This reaction, however, is based on a lie for several reasons.  First, the nature of the State is coercive; it bears the power of the sword.[8]  Put in more concrete terms:  What do we really want officials with guns and bazookas to do?  Accordingly, whatever the State touches will be subject to coercion; its only operative mode is inherently coercive.  If this power is not defined and confined, it will, over time, reduce citizens to being subjects, restricting or eliminating liberty to innovate and otherwise flourish.  When this occurs, the cultural mandate is stunted, undermining one of man’s purposes.[9]  Dictatorships may profit select individuals, but rarely, if ever, do they prosper a people as a whole:  compare North Korea with South Korea.

    Second, the State can never possess sufficient power and knowledge to salvifically regulate a nation into prosperity, let alone righteousness.  To think otherwise embraces a utopian delusion and lives a lie.  A State may gain or acquire significant power, but that power – no matter how significant – can never rival the Gospel’s power to rescue, heal, and save.  It alone is the “power of God for salvation to everyone.”[10]  

    And, even setting aside the State’s lack of power for generating eternal consequences, the State lacks both efficient and sufficient knowledge to make viable temporal differences concerning human action and economics.[11]  Managed economies are always mediocre economies doomed with persistent shortages, wide inflationary swings, and higher unemployment.  The fundamental lie here is that it mis-orders the nature of productivity:  Production must precede Consumption, not vice versa which all Keynesian managed solutions impose.[12]  

    When the State is viewed as Savior and deploys its coercive power to impose price controls, rent control, crony capitalistic deals, tariffs, wage regulation, taxes, etc., based on this lie, economies – and human flourishing – diminishes.  As we shall see, the State cannot save even temporally because it was never designed nor purposed to save.  Yet, recognizing this truth often leads to another enslaving lie:  maybe the State should be viewed not through utopian glasses as Savior, but through a cynical lens, as a necessary evil.  Christians are told to reject and avoid the State since “politics is dirty,” always viewing the State with suspicion, cynicism, and skepticism.

    The State as Suspect?

    Maybe this quip only appeals to legal and political nerds, but it illustrates a point:

    • Did you hear about the Libertarian’s proposal to revise the 1stAmendment? 
    • Here’s the new language: “Congress shall make no law PERIOD!” 

    The idea here is that the State should do next to nothing; in fact some Libertarians actually believe in nearly zero State action.[13]  The assumption is that the State lacks competency or even moral illegitimacy for protecting and structuring ordered liberty.  Libertarians instead believe that the unfettered market best orders society and solves its coordination problems.  Libertarians are half right.

    First, as the next section will show, the Biblical truth is that the State is both legitimate and limited – so far so good.  However, while Scripture presupposes the morality of liberty-based markets,[14] it is the virtuous market that Scripture embraces.  Saying “markets are good” is not to say “all markets are good.”  Unconstrainted markets such as those that Libertarians promote, operate to feed sinful man’s appetites.  In other words, there always will be markets, that is, demand, for bad things that compromise or undermine human flourishing and ordered liberty:  drugs, gambling, sex trafficking, child pornography, contract murder, fencing stolen property, stealing or forging art masterpieces[15], medically mutilating and disfiguring children presenting with gender dysphoria[16], et al.  Relying solely on markets absent a moral compass ultimately leads to systematizing moral weakness and corruption.

    This “State is suspect” lie sometimes takes on a quasi-Gnostic twinge:  certain material things – governmental systems and institutions – are deemed off limits or sinful in themselves.  Many historically Anabaptist traditions forbid involvement with the State, as if it were an inherently sinful endeavor.  So, these folks refuse, for example, to serve in the military, government offices, vote, and/or often live separately and communally, claiming religious exemptions to things like traffic laws or employment taxes.[17]

    In short, both of these lies, one overtly religious and the other overtly secular, commit the same error:  they lack a well-formed theology of the State. Consequently, an atrophied State ends up creating just as much public immorality and disorder as does a totalitarian State.

    The State as Servant 

    So, is the State necessary and if so, what is its design and function?  Is there a pathway between the Scylla of Statist totalitarianism and the Charybdis of a feckless State-induced Anarchy?  Yes, there is, as theologian Nigel Biggar helpfully observes:

    [G]overnment is needed to maintain law and order. . . . without law and order nothing human can flourish – unless you think that the unconstrained power of the warlord is a form of flourishing.[18]

    How then should Christians conceptualize the State in a way which dispels the lies we live?  Has the Lord instructed us in such things?  Indeed, because Christ is Lord, His divine power has in fact “granted us all things that pertain to life and godliness.”[19]  This includes life and godliness in the public square including a theology of the State.

    First, note that Paul makes a crucial observation when the law of God is applied by the State in society as positive law,[20] duly adapted and enacted for the public:

    Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.[21]

    In particular, Paul makes three points relevant here.  First, one must rightly use the law and when done so, the law is good.   This means that the State, when deploying law, can do so wrongly.  Might does not make right.  Consequently, a legitimately enacted law may not be legitimate.  Christians have a duty therefore to monitor, encourage, and critique the State’s use or misuse of law.  To ignore or to robotically affirm the State and its use of law fails to love one’s neighbor.

    Second, one must deploy the law publicly in a focused and purposeful way:  addressing particular conduct – not status, beliefs, attitudes, conscience, or minority views or perceptions.[22]  Rather, the law’s target is overt conduct.  The law thus applies to those who are evidently or conspicuously lawless and disobedient, as Paul instructs.  The State exceeds its purpose if it targets matters beyond this.[23]

    Third, Paul informs us that when these purposes are executed,the law coheres with the Gospel and accordingly, there is no necessary or intrinsic conflict between law and gospel.  In other words, Paul rejects the dualism so common in certain strains of evangelicalism that pits law against gospel.[24]  Yet, his point should be intuitive:  The Gospel is the announcement and proclamation that Jesus the King has come as the Ruler and Law Giver making all things right.[25]

    Now, here are some other implications of Paul’s assessment:  Given these parameters defining the rightful use the positive law and thus the State’s function, this means that neither positive law nor the State can or should be treated as:  

    • Totalistic → applying to every human endeavor; and claiming to do so, it becomes unjust in the nature of the case[26]
    • Autonomous → creating its own self-derived moral compass and standard[27]
    • Plenary/Absolute → unaccountable to any thing or standard outside itself

    In contrast, Christ Himself – and Christ alone – IS all these things:

    • Totalistic → Christ is the Creator and thus His Rule necessarily extends to the entire Cosmos,[28] including all human experience
    • Autonomous → Christ is both the end/purpose of the Law[29] and the Law-Giving King[30]; His law reflects His character, being a transcript of His righteousness and He therefore He did not come to abolish it[31]
    • Absolute/Plenary → He is His own appellate court as there can be no higher standard than Himself.  Accordingly, “Let God be true though every one . . . a liar.”[32]

    To attribute any of these characteristics to anything in creation is another example of exchanging the Truth for the Lie, which spawns derivative lies that live.  

    Given these parameters, Christ unsurprisingly articulates a key precept for understanding the State when He says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”[33]  Among other things, this is a jurisdictional precept:  Not everything is Caesar’s and thus everything cannot be rightly subject to Caesar’s regulation or positive law.  This means that in a well-ordered society, there will be zones of liberty conducive to human flourishing.[34]  Boundaries therefore exist to Caesar’s jurisdiction meaning that law cannot remediate or even address every problem in a fallen world – nor can the State.

    This point implies that there can be no utopia on this side of the Consummation.  In fact, any urging for an imposed utopia via coercive State power embodies a perennial heresy.[35]  Given the State’s jurisdictional limitations, this means that a well-ordered society will develop and protect a robust civil society teeming with mediating institutions.

    Confirming the foregoing, Paul outlines a normative blueprint for the State in the locus classicus set forth in Romans 13.  There he teaches:

    • The State is “instituted by God” as a “servant” or “minister”→ Caesar’s authority and thus positive law is defined by and derived from God’s prior acts; the State’s role is therefore not outside nor independent of God, and that role exists to serve God’s priorities
    • Accordingly, State action is limited to those who “do wrong,” that is, addressing particular actions and conduct – not status, belief, attitude, conscience, or conviction[36]
    • The State enjoys a bona fide monopoly on coercive power because it “bears the sword”.  This means that anything placed under or ceded to the State is subject to force and coercion as mentioned previously[37]
    • From this flows that the State’s role is neither ecclesial nor redemptive:  rescuing last sheep, feeding the hungry, caring for the ill, each a good thing etc. all lay beyond the authority and purpose granted by God to the State

    The exchange of the Truth for the Lie need not be a permanent state of affairs.  This is because God the Creator is also God the pursuing and powerful Redeemer.  Worshipping the State is not inevitable; trashing the State is not inevitable.  Rather, with moral clarity, moral conviction, and moral courage, Christians can – and should – seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, including public righteousness,[38] rendering to Caesar those things – and only those things – which are his. The TxC Fellowship comprises an interdisciplinary experience to forge the next generation to cultivate an informed moral clarity, conviction, and courage.  This unique program’s application will soon be live; pray and stay tuned because:

    Those who forsake the law praise 

    the wicked,

    but those who keep the law strive 

    against them.

    Evil men do not understand justice,

    but those who seek the LORD 

     understand it completely.[39]

    For Further Study:

    • Jonathan Burnside, God, Justice, and Society:  Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible (2010)
    • David W. Hall, Savior or Servant?  Putting Government in its Place (1996)
    • Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations:  Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (2008)
    • Benjamin Wiker, Worshipping the State – How Liberalism Became Our State Religion (2013)
    • Os Guinness, The Magna Carta of Humanity:  Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom, (2021)
    • Steven D. Smith, Pagans & Christians in the City:  Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac (2018)

    [1] Chief Priests, Jn. 19:15

    [2] Paul, Phil. 4:22

    [3] Jesus, Mark 12:17

    [4] Gen. 1

    [5]1 Cor. 14:40

    [6] Ex. 20

    [7] President Biden, during his recent State of the Union address called the overturning of Roe v. Wade an “assault on freedom,” surely assuming that “freedom” equates to individual autonomy – a clear departure from Augustine and the Christian tradition.  https://www.npr.org/2024/03/08/1236782758/state-of-the-union-address-biden-trump

    [8] Rm. 13:4

    [9] Gen. 1:28; Gen. 9:1, 2

    [10] Rm. 1:16

    [11] F.A. Hayek pinpointed the “knowledge problem” inherent in socialist or managed economies.  For a popular exposition of this see, Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions (1982).  See also, F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit – The Errors of Socialism (1991)

    [12] David L. Bahnsen, Full Time: Work and the Meaning of Life (2024).  FDR’s New Deal which applied Keynesian notions, exacerbated, rather than ameliorated, the Great Depression all in the name of supposedly helping “the forgotten man.”  See, Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man – A New History of the Great Depression (2008)  

    [13] These are the anarcho-capitalists like Lew Rockwell and Murray Rothbard.

    [14] Robert Sirico, The Economics of the Parables (2022)

    [15] Stealing Beauty:  the History of Art Forgery, and the Rise in Art Thefts during the Pandemic,https://thesciencesurvey.com/news/2022/02/01/stealing-beauty-the-history-of-art-forgery-and-the-rise-in-art-thefts-during-the-pandemic/

    [16] Secret files show how international group pushes shocking

    experimental gender surgery for minors, https://nypost.com/2024/03/04/opinion/secret-files-show-how-international-group-pushes-shocking-experimental-gender-surgery-for-minors/

    [17] Think of the Amish and their buggies or other communities that opt out of Social Security.

    [18] Nigel Biggar, Colonialism – A Moral Reckoning (2023), 11

    [19] 2 Peter 1:3

    [20] “Positive law” simply means the law enacted or otherwise promulgated by humans and their institutions.  The Reformed tradition helpfully notes the three uses of God’s law:  Mirror (showing men their sin), Muzzle (restraining public evil and dispensing justice), and Map (providing a pattern for godly and sanctified living).  The positive law functions as the second use, muzzle.

    [21] 1 Tim. 1:8-11

    [22] Note that in the 1 Tim 1:8-10 passage Paul omits mentioning the Sabbath (4th Commandment) and covetousness (the 10thCommandment).  The first is a creational matter, not a civil matter, and the latter is an internal attitudinal matter, not a matter of overt conduct.  Thus, to covet someone’s car, though sinful, is not illegal; to steal that car is both sinful and illegal under the 8th Commandment.

    [23] A modern example of this would be ubiquitous “licensing” schemes which target, for example, sign language interpreters or dog walkers, among other professions.  SeeOccupational Licensing is a Scam, https://fee.org/articles/occupational-licensing-is-a-scam/

    [24] John M. Frame, Law and Gospel, https://frame-poythress.org/law-and-gospel/

    [25] See, e.g., John M. Frame, The Source of Knowledge, Power, and Love (accessed March 8, 2024), https://thelaymenslounge.com/interview-with-john-frame/ and N.T. Wright, On Earth as in Heaven – Daily Wisdom for Twenty-First Century Christians, (2022), 66.

    [26] This is the ethical flaw inherent to every totalitarian enterprise:  Communist China, Muslim Iran, Communist North Korea, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, et al

    [27] This is inherent in all forms of legal positivism; as C.S. Lewis once quipped somewhere, a yard stick can’t measure itself.

    [28] Matt. 28:16-20

    [29] Rom. 10:4

    [30] Matt. 28:20

    [31] Matt. 5:17-19

    [32] Rom. 3:4

    [33] Matt. 22:21

    [34] The Christian faith has historically recognized this relatively unregulated zone via the doctrines of sphere sovereignty and subsidiarity.  

    [35] Thomas Molnar, Utopia – The Perennial Heresy (1967)

    [36] Biblically conceived justice also requires procedural protections as well as substantive content.  For example, multiple witnesses are required, penalties ought to be proportional, and partiality is forbidden, to name a few.

    [37] Nationalized health care is a prime example.  These schemes inevitably lead to less innovation, rationing care, supply shortages, protracted delays and waiting times, and mediocre service.  As one US physician put it:  given the overall cancer survival rates, where would you want to have cancer, the US or the UK?  See, e.g., https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2024/02/26/uk-cancer-survival-rates-lag-15-years-countries-chemo/#:~:text=UK%20cancer%20survival%20rates%20are,cancer%20types%20across%20three%20continents.

    And relatedly, because a centralized system cannot efficiently process knowledge and address the myriad of coordination problems involved with providing health care, the “solution” drifts toward euthanasia, even of the non-terminally ill.  Witness Belgium, The Netherlands, Canada, et al.  The so-called “Right to Die” morphs into the duty to die in such regimes.  

    [38]Mt. 6:33; the term translated “righteousness,” dikaiosunē, is and can be translated “justice” and it is not limited to private or interpersonal matters.

    [39] Prov. 28:4, 5