Divine Authority and Authoritarianism
Apr11
Philosophy8

Divine Authority and Authoritarianism

Historically it has been for the most part taken for granted that the authority of God is like political authority. The German jurist Carl Schmitt makes it very nearly a sociological law that the two should be thought of similarly,1 and traces the development of political thought through various parallel theological stages. The natural law tradition reasoned that God binds his sovereignty by reason and justice; therefore no ruler may be above the law. Later, nominalist thought, in which the sovereignty of God is totally unbound, came to serve as the intellectual foundation for monarchical absolutism in Europe (Elshtain 2008). If God has the power even to undo what is done, then a sovereign political ruler has the authority to shape the law in any way and at any time he chooses. According to Rousseau, as the will of God is good by definition, so was the will of the sovereign ruler. During the Enlightenment, the deistic god who issues general rules rather than specific decrees was congenial to the minds that drew up constitutional limits to their governments. And more recently, the American evangelical theologian Carl F.H. Henry made the analogy, writing against liberal Protestantism in Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (p. 169). If one adopts a liberal theology, he contends,

Redemption soon loses its voluntary character as divine election and becomes an inevitable if not necessary divine provision. . . . Future punishment of the wicked is revised to conform to benevolent rather than punitive motivations, and hell is emptied of its terrors by man-made theories of universal salvation. The state is no longer dedicated to justice and order, encouraging and enforcing human rights and responsibilities under God, but is benevolently bent toward people’s socio-economic wants.

The jump in the last sentence is significant: because they conceive of God in this way, he argues, it follows that they must conceive of the state in an analogous manner.

Given the historical force of this analogy downward, it’s hard to fault those who reason back up the same chain. Continental liberalism in its more radical forms, with its refrain Ni Dieu ni maître – “Neither God nor master” – conceives of the authority of God as an essentially political authority, and so generalizes its anti-authoritarian impulse to include a strong anti-theism. As political authority is always manifested unjustly, so God appears to them little more than a spiritual tyrant, bearing a lightning bolt as the earthly king bears the sword. Others – Christians among them – have reasoned that earthly rulers have no control over the mind of man; therefore man’s will is metaphysically free before God. In any case, whether political authority was thought of as delegated by God or simply took its categories from theology, the fundamental assumption was that the authority of God is essentially a political authority.

All this analogizing was easily justified by a simple reading of Romans 13:1-2. All authority is from God, Paul argues, “therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God”. It would appear that God accomplishes his purposes by giving his own authority to earthly rulers who rule in his stead.

This verse is not as simple as it might seem on its surface, however. And yet we must be cautious not to discard the plain sense of the verse, unless as Martin Luther argues, “such be required by some obvious feature of the words and the absurdity of their plain sense”.2 I intend to show that this must indeed be the case.

Luther in particular stands out among the major political writers of Christendom in his idea of authority. For him, Romans 13 is little more than divine approval for the idea of secular authority (Luther 1522), against the Anabaptists who held that it was a sin for Christians to hold office and participate in government.3 At the very least, the analogy between divine and earthly authority does not have the entire weight of history behind it. But we must go further.

No Christian would assert that God gives moral approval to each political authority on earth. Even without the dismal judgements pronounced on various authorities by the prophets, it is hardly a stretch to presume that rulers are at least as responsible before God as the rest of us. Some of the most atrocious evils recorded both in the Bible and in modern history have been committed by and at the behest of political authority, and there is no reason to suppose that the veneer of political authority sanctifies them. To argue an analogy between the nature of divine authority and earthly authority on the plain meaning of the words of Romans 13 undoubtedly demonstrates the “absurdity of their plain sense”.

The point of the passage is, however, plainly hortatory. Paul is exhorting the Roman church to submit to authority. As Yoder put it (1973, p. 203), “the apostle is making a moral statement, not a metaphysical one.”

Furthermore, Biblical submission to earthly authority is never unconditional. Throughout the Bible, from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to Paul, Christians are encouraged to defy authority where it presumes to command a higher allegiance than God’s. “We must obey God rather than men”, Peter says in Acts 5:29. Paul is under no delusion that human authority always comports with God’s will.

His point, then, is to protect the Church from unnecessary persecution. Peter asks (I Pet. 2:20), “what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.” Peter and Paul are both advising Christians to choose their battles, so to speak. One expects to be persecuted for revolution or civil disobedience. The Christian, however, is advised to bring persecution on himself only for the name of Christ. Particular political questions can rarely be decided with a simple appeal to scripture, and there is no reason to suppose that Christians will be more likely than anyone else to choose the “right” side in a conflict, whichever that may be.4 As obviously unjust as the Roman system seems to us today, even according to Christian principles, it should give us pause to note that no New Testament author ever opines on a policy question.

This is also the reason why Paul harps on unity in his epistles. What does it matter if you were converted by Paul or Apollos, if God gave the growth (1 Cor. 3:4f)? Why should there be factions within the Church if we all have one Lord, partake of one Baptism, etc. (Eph. 4:1-6)? The Gospel is controversial enough on its own (1 Cor. 1:23), and “God does not want us to be entangled with the affairs of this world to the point where such involvement detracts from our primary mission” (Cobin 2006, p. 125).

But though Romans 13 is primarily focused on the behavior of individual believers, Paul seems to be saying something about authority: “For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.”

Here, we can cite Luther once again to make the necessary distinction between the command and the ordinance of God, something which Catholic doctrine and Thomist tradition consistently fail to do.5 He explains it thus in The Bondage of the Will (Luther 1525, p. 170f), using the terms “God preached” and “God hidden”, respectively:

We must discuss God, or the will of God, preached, revealed, offered to us, and worshipped by us, in one way, and God not preached, nor revealed, nor offered to us, nor worshipped by us, in another way. . . . God preached works to the end that sin and death may be taken away, and we may be saved. . . . but God hidden in majesty neither deplores nor takes away death, but works life, and death, and all in all; nor has He set bounds to Himself by His Word, but has kept Himself free over all things.

. . . The Diatribe [against which Luther is writing] . . . makes no distinction between God preached and God hidden, that is, between the Word of God and God himself. God does many things which he does not show us in his word, and he wills many things which he does not in his word show us that he wills. Thus, He does not will the death of a sinner – that is, in His Word; but He wills it by His inscrutable will.

Luther comes across here as the strongest of Nominalists: he asserts not only that God has unbound power to do and undo, but that nothing at all happens unless God actively wills it. And yet, he never makes the analogy from absolute divine authority to absolute secular authority. In fact, he stridently argued against it three years earlier in On Secular Authority. Nowhere does his idea of the absolute sovereignty of God translate into sanction for political absolutism.

Norman Horn brings us back to Romans 13, noting in the same vein:

Paul’s primary message for Christians . . . is not that states are specially instituted in the same way as the family and church, but rather that the state is not operating outside of the plans of God. In this sense, the state is divinely instituted in the same way that Satan is divinely instituted. God is not surprised when states act the way they do.

Ordinance is not institution. As we have seen, God – that is, in his Word – does not endorse every exercise of power. We are therefore forced to take Romans 13 to be speaking of the inscrutable ordinance of God, not of his moral will. Paul is not giving a divine stamp of approval to Rome, but is rather comforting believers that God is working good even from a brutally oppressive regime. It is a particular application of the general point he made five chapters earlier, that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28). Not only do policy and revolution perish in the end, but God is already working current circumstances toward a higher good than we can fathom. The goodness and sovereignty of God free us from preoccupation with these things to focus on the mission of Christ set forth in the Word of God.

Sovereignty, Authority, and Obligation

If it is inappropriate to draw inferences from divine authority to political authority, it is even less appropriate to draw inferences the other way – from political authority to divine authority. What then can we say about the rule of God over the world?

We have a hint of the answer in Luther’s concept of sovereignty: God the Father causes everything to pass which passes, and guides us normatively by his Word. This distinction shatters any analogy from divine rule to earthly rule and vice versa. In it is contained the whole doctrine of election and of salvation by grace alone.

But for now, we are only concerned with authority. God Hidden issues no commands, but “works life, and death, and all in all”. Thus Jesus says, “The Father judges no one” (John 5:22). With no command comes no judgement (cf. Rom. 4:15). Such authority is perfect, infinite, and absolutely inescapable. It is what the nonbeliever would call “fate” or “the course of events”. There are no contingencies, promises, or threats; only “God said” and “there was” (Gen. 1:3).

It makes no sense to speak of voluntary submission to such authority. Submission is involuntary; the very essence of existence. “Apart from him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:3). This authority can no more be resisted than one can will one’s own existence (Rom. 9:20f).

But regardless, our antitheists have no pretensions to such metaphysical superpowers. Their issue is not with being bound by spacetime and the laws of physics – who could argue with that? – but with the normative commands, injunctions, and promises issued by God through his Word. By what authority does the Word of God command “Thou shalt not”, and how does this law differ from one given by an earthly ruler?

We have distinguished transcendent, inviolable sovereignty from immanent, violable authority which demands a response of the will. It will be helpful then to address what is meant by “authority”. Augustine famously reasoned that evil has no existence in itself; that it is merely the absence of good, as dark is the absence of light. Good has the positive existence and its own definition – namely proximity to God. Evil, on the other hand, can only be defined in terms of a good which is lacking. It is likewise with authority.6 To attempt to define it as a thing in itself leads a theology or philosophy in contorted loops around the relevant categories. Authority can only be defined in terms of its reverse, obligation.7 There can be obligation without authority, but there is no authority without obligation.8 So rather than asking, “What gives someone authority over other people?”, it strikes closer to the heart of the question to ask, “What creates an obligation to an authority?”. The relevant point thus comes into clearer focus: obligation is created by goodness.

Now surely this assertion will cause some discomfort. If our only obligations are to our own good, what is left of authority, divine or human? Is it true, as Pythagoras said, that man himself is the measure of all things? This would seem to exalt human good over divine authority as a final end, and relegate us here on earth to anarchy.

But this notion is not so foreign. C.S. Lewis opens his essay The Weight of Glory claiming,

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.

It is no sin to desire our own good. Indeed it is the essence of action to substitute a perceived greater good for a lesser9 – that is, to strive for our own good as we see it. Lewis continues, saying that “it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.” Human good is not opposed to divine authority, for God himself is our highest good – the summum bonum. This fact constitutes the entirety of the authority of the Word of God. It is grounded in, and inseparable from, his essential goodness.10

Jesus says as much in Mark 10:42-44, contrasting his own rule with that of the rulers of the gentiles, “who lord it over them.” The Son of Man, however, “came not to be served, but to serve.” His is not an authority like that of so many earthly rulers who rule by might for their own benefit. Rather, his authority (and that of anyone who would be great in the Kingdom of God) over his kingdom consists his serving them; that is, in being their good.

Even so, is “goodness” broad enough to encompass every obligation we face? Let us then with a few examples speak of obligation, and by extension authority, in terms of the good sought for, and the evil attending to its violation.

On earth, fallen as we are, there are rarely cases of unequivocal good. There are always tradeoffs; a lesser good for a greater good. The good which creates such an obligation need only be good relative to the alternative. For example, my obligation to repay a debt lent to me by a friend, even absent legal recourse, signifies the higher good of maintaining a friendship, or even of maintaining my own trustworthiness, over the money I might pocket by failing to repay.

Nor are all obligations moral, just as not all authority is moral. Some are simply expedient. Political authority creates such an obligation by adding the weight of judgement, encompassing both reward and punishment, to the balance of tradeoffs. There is a moral obligation not to murder, for the sake of one’s own soul and for social peace, but if this holds little weight with anyone, there is also the expedient good of avoiding punishment to hold him back. Abraham Kuyper (1898) called this sort of authority mechanical, in that the good which creates an obligation to it is only relative to the evil that it will impose upon violators.11

Note that this reasoning does not need to invent a theology of natural rights or human dignity in order to limit the authority of earthly powers over the Christian – and not merely a normative limitation, but a limitation in fact. Mechanical authority can only command obligation so far as they have the power to take. In most cases, this taking is only out of the benefits which that authority confers. An employer has no authority over his employee except so far as he can refrain from bestowing an expected good. He cannot impose a cost greater than the good he bestows. The employee is free to be jobless should that option be more attractive than an employer’s demand. Governments, however, can wield coercive force, and so command more authority than their net benefit by subtracting even from the baseline, up to a person’s life. Hence political authority is the subset of mechanical authority which commands the power to take more than it has given. Even so, the Christian possesses a higher good than his own life, something which all the force in the world cannot remove from him. Human authority can never command total allegiance except by claiming itself to be the highest good within a naturalistic universe – a claim and a presupposition the Christian knows to be false.

Natural authority12 on the other hand, for example the authority of an expert, is founded only on natural consequences, as opposed to judgement.13 One becomes such an authority, in the sciences for example, by diligent research, study, and publication. Such authority has no need to throw its own weight upon the balance of tradeoffs. So far as its authority is valid, it reflects the balance as it already exists. Were I to disregard the authority of a mechanic who tells me I need to replace the transmission in my car, I would likely find myself shortly stranded on the side of the road. On the other hand, to the extent that expert authority is not grounded in reality, it may be safely discarded.

Moral authority is a type of natural authority, so far as it reflects moral reality. It should be clear then that mechanical authority, and especially political authority, is very nearly the antithesis of moral authority. In the first place, it confers no moral merit to follow a rule simply to avoid punishment or to gain a reward naturally unconnected to the act itself. And second, moral authority does not depend on imposing artificial consequences for its legitimacy. Indeed so far as an individual or a body exercises mechanical or political authority, its moral authority is undermined. There is no mechanical authority which does not plant by its exercise the seed of rebellion. It is at least conceivable that moral and mechanical authority could issue from one body, but but they are essentially unconnected.

Does the Word of God then exercise a natural authority, our fate simply the inevitable result of our actions, or is it a mechanical authority, its own weight of judgement behind its commands?

Both.

Consequence and Covenant

As we have seen, the authority of the Word of God is founded in the transcendent goodness of God. In other words, it has no authority apart from the fact that God Hidden has ordained the world such that the commandments of his Word are for our ultimate good, which is of course to say nothing except that “the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus says as much in John 13:49: “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment.” More plainly, the authority of the Word of God under the New Covenant consists entirely of natural consequence.

Under the Mosaic Covenant however, it is fairly clear that God stood in relation to Israel as a mechanical authority. “Therefore keep the words of this covenant and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do” (Deut. 29:9). The Old Testament contains story after story of God’s chastisement on both individuals and the nation of Israel for violating the covenant.

There is great significance in this difference. For the law was not given as an end in itself, but as a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Gal. 3:4). The entire Old Covenant was a shadow of the spiritual reality revealed in the New Covenant, even down to the regulations of daily life (1 Cor. 9:9-10). The ceremonial law especially, as the book of Hebrews makes clear, prefigures in physical forms our spiritual relationship to God through Christ our mediator.

Herein we see the usefulness of mechanical authority: it is instructive and remedial. It is not natural – for it becomes necessary only when there is a conflict of wills – but its legitimacy consists in its signification of a reality which is not necessarily apparent to the subject. C.S. Lewis (1941) speaks of the necessity of mechanical or mercenary reward to incentivize a schoolboy to learn Greek, as the natural consequence of the enjoyment of Greek poetry is not yet apparent to him. Conversely, a child upon whom the danger of traffic has not yet been impressed may be prevented from playing in the street by the threat of spanking until he learns the true danger therein.

The law was given to Israel in much the same spirit. Immediately preceding the issuance of the Mosaic Covenant, its reason is given that “the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deut. 29:4). The prediction of the New Covenant, however, offers a striking contrast: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33). It is precisely the failure of understanding that made the symbols necessary. Once that understanding is granted by the Spirit of God, the symbols become superfluous.

The law was not itself spiritual reality, and could not save. It did however signify that reality, and in such a way brought those Israelites – whom are called “true Israelites” to signify their apprehension of the reality rather than simply the form – to salvation in the same way that Christians are now brought to salvation under the New Covenant. The New Covenant on the other hand, being itself the spiritual reality, has no more need of the old symbols than a Greek professor has of a rap on the knuckles for goofing off. Circumcision is no longer necessary because the Church has been given circumcision of the heart. Priests are no longer necessary as mediators because the Church has Christ as its true mediator – this is what he meant in saying “I have come to fulfill the law” (Matt. 5:17). And on the other hand, the Church no longer has need of being a national body punishable by invasion from outside, because the true consequences of sin – eternal death – have been revealed.

The Consequences of Sin

To repeat, the shadows having passed away under the light of the reality they indicated, the authority of the Word of God under the New Covenant consists entirely of natural consequence. This truth severs the root of many superstitions. God is not a Zeus figure standing in Heaven with a lightning bolt ready to impose doom on those recalcitrant humans who fail to follow his will. He does not bring sickness and death to punish unrelated sins, nor does he reward righteousness with good fortune except so far as it follows naturally from prudence. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). He does not throw his weight on one side of the balance of tradeoffs, for his ordinance is that balance – reality itself in its entirety, and he himself is the ultimate good that creates for us the ultimate obligation.

The Far Side: God At His Computer

The book of Job, for example, has as a subplot the misguided sanctimony of Job’s friends, who assume that his bad fortune is the direct consequence of sin in his life. In John 9 also, Jesus’ disciples ask regarding a blind beggar, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus does not say “He masturbated too much.” In fact he does not relate it to any sin from which blindness would not follow naturally. Instead, he answers that this man was born blind so that “the works of God might be displayed in him” – and proceeds to heal him.

If we imagine reality as Jesus does here, and as Luther did in the passage above – not as something existing separately from God and in which he periodically tinkers, but as the very expression of the glory of God which owes every facet of its existence to the continued animating work of God, and into which he spoke his Word for our good – then the thought of a totalitarian God makes little sense. The revulsion we feel at the thought of a divine moralistic tyrant is nothing more than a careless agglomeration of the trinity of God into a crude unity.

If the commandments of the Word of God were arbitrary – that is, if they had no natural consequence – they would be issued with no authority at all. But in fact, the law is intimately connected to reality and to human happiness. The authority of the Word of God is the most natural of authorities with respect to spiritual reality, whose commands we ignore at our own peril.

Furthermore, just as the Word of God has no authority apart from the ordinance of the Father, it serves no benefit apart from the Spirit of God14 – that is, without faith. Either, for the nonbeliever, the law brings him to the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20, Gal. 3:24) and thus to repentance or condemnation, or for the believer, it exhorts him to unhindered fellowship with God and away from sin and distraction.15 The law of God is never an end in itself: our obligation to it is not a categorical imperative, but leads us to our own highest good.

The faith which the Spirit gives is the concrete apprehension of God as that highest Good. It is the revelation of God’s glory, and the concomitant desire to see more. “One thing I have asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire into his temple” (Ps. 27:4). To primarily fear an immediate judgement from God indicates that the Spirit of God has not yet impressed the true consequences of sin. This attitude is what is signified by being under the law: it will still serve as a schoolmaster, but it still also will not save. Without spirit-given faith to transform desire at its deepest level, the commandments seem merely a series of onerous and arbitrary thou-shalt-nots.

This then is the value of the commandments of God: not benchmarks (by which comes a life either of pride or despair) or imperatives (by which comes a life either of resentment or fear), but signposts – guiding and confirming those already on their way, but of scant use to those headed elsewhere.

Thus to follow the law of God, unlike political law, is not a submission of the will, but of the desire. Will follows naturally afterward. “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments; and his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). How else can this be understood than a will, not merely submitted, but transformed? Obedience to the Word of God is not the abdication of our own interests, but the surest pursuit of our highest good. As Augustine once quipped, “Love [God], and do what you will”.16

Of course, apprehension of God as the highest Good also entails as its flipside an apprehension of the incalculable damage done to the soul the pursuit of lesser goods. Failure in our obligation is a forfeiture of the good that it aimed for. In Augustine’s formulation, evil not only distances us from the summum bonum, but is itself distance from God. Just as God himself is both the rewarder and the reward, so sin is both the thing punished and and the punishment itself (Rom. 1:24-32), both following naturally from our choices. Our desire, at the most general level, is always fulfilled in the end: either imperishable Good, or perishing goods.

Hell therefore, far from the final spite of a spurned sovereign, is the most natural of consequences. Unbelief is nothing more than to seek one’s good elsewhere than in God. What could be more natural then, according to the ordinance of God, for those whose good is sought in the imperishable to find themselves imperishable, and for those whose good is sought in perishable things to perish themselves? Hell is no more and no less than total separation from all good, voluntarily rejected. Fire and brimstone make for vivid imagery, but they are imagery nonetheless. The essence of Hell is far worse.

The Judgement of God

What then do we make of the scriptures that speak of the personal wrath and mercy of God, even in the New Testament? These seem to reinstitute a regime of mechanical authority in which God does in fact throw his weight on one side of the balance of tradeoffs, albeit farther in the future than before.

The authority of the Word of God as we have seen is fully natural. But it is fully personal as well, in the same way as mechanical earthly authorities. The Word of God, by which we navigate the ordinance of God, is God (John 1:1), having lowered himself into the finiteness of his own creation. The Spirit of God, by which we obey and take hold of the benefits of the Word of God, is God. Natural consequences are brought forth by the same God from whom the commands are issued. In discussing the trinity of God, we must always keep in view his unity as well.

The decay and ultimate destruction of the soul is no more or less divine punishment for sin than is a broken neck for diving into an empty pool. Both follow naturally from their respective action, and both are brought forth by the conscious animating work of God Hidden. But then, it is hard to imagine God looking down from heaven with moral indignation for jumping into an empty pool, or investing in a ponzi scheme, or any other bad decision which does not necessarily signify a moral lapse. The difference is that sin, unlike poor foresight, primarily affects the soul, and it is the resulting estrangement from the Spirit of God and the goodness therein that is spoken of as judgement.

God cares for the soul of man through his Word; hence the second half of John 5:22: “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgement to the Son.” All that the Father – God hidden – needs to do regarding sin is to animate the world according to its ordained natural consequences. No judgement is involved. Empty pools break necks, sin breaks souls. The Word of God however – the Son begotten into that world – personally convicts the soul and brings judgement upon it for its blight of sin.

Thus what follows naturally as consequence from God the Father is judgement and wrath from God the Son. And if we, along with Christ himself and the entire Church throughout history, assert that “I [Christ] and the Father are one” – that the trinity of God does not conflict with his essential unity – then we must conclude that, with respect to divine authority, there is no distinction between judgement and natural consequence.

There is peril in myopia on this point. To play up the political nature of the authority of God and to disregard its naturalness is to externalize his reign. A faith based in fear of judgement is no faith at all – “even the demons believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). Without the naturalness of Hell, God becomes unjust and arbitrary – a totalitarian Zeus figure with a lightning bolt. The inherent goodness of God recedes from view, and our service to God commends us to him no more than our service to the state.

On the other hand, to play up the naturalness of the rule of God makes it easy to sacrifice his sovereignty if we disregard the judgement inherent in Hell as well. It seems a kinder God who does not punish us any more than we bring on ourselves. This is the impetus behind many emergent movements within Protestantism, open theism being at the extreme end, to again construe God as a tinkerer in a reality which for the most part operates on its own.

Furthermore, the total loss of judgement behind the authority of God erases the doctrine of substitutionary atonement by which Christ took the punishment for our sins upon himself. Substitutionary atonement entails a political analogy to the authority of God – our moral debt is incurred against an authority which itself operates to collect that debt. And though that analogy does not paint the whole picture of the authority of God (for that authority, even in settling our debt, still operates by inescapably natural consequences), it is a necessary framework through which to clearly see the glory of Christ in accomplishing our redemption by payment of that debt.17

Finally, considering the results of sin as punishment and those of virtue as reward serves a practical purpose in addition to the aspects of its truthfulness we have considered. These results are revealed to us by scripture as the natural consequences of the actions they follow due to the health or degeneracy of the soul they engender through proximity to the spirit of God. But due to the finiteness of the human mind, especially that mind which is new in the faith, the idea of personal judgement serves as training wheels, so to speak, keeping the Christian from the formation of evil habits (or breaking him of habits already formed) until such time as his eyes are more fully opened to the naturalness of these same consequences.18

In sum: the absolute and infinite authority of God Hidden is in no wise analogous to a political authority. One can no more resist the authority of God than the authority of gravity: not just because God has the means to render judgement, but because if we were not de facto subject to it, cause and effect would cease to apply, for actions could not even occur, let alone have consequences. Nor is the immanent authority of the Word of God “merely” political, but by the fact of God’s oneness in trinity, is an essentially natural authority as well in a way that earthly political authority cannot be.

Away then, with all conceptions of a vindictive and tinkering God. We do not worship a Zeus in Olympus or a Caesar in Rome, but a God in Heaven, “for whom and through whom are all things” (Heb. 2:10).

Footnotes

  1. He writes (1985, p. 46) that “the metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immediately understands to be appropriate as a form of its political organization.” The following paragraph summarizes his narrative.
  2. Luther, Martin. Bondage of the Will (1525), trans. by Packer, J.I. et al. (1957), p. 192f. The book is as much a hermeneutical treatise as a theological. Luther is here arguing against Erasmus’ explaining away the plain sense of several passages of scripture by use of indiscriminate figures.
  3. He demonstrates this point from other passages as well – for example Luke 3:12-14, in which John the Baptist does not advise tax collectors and soldiers to renounce their coercive state jobs, but to execute them honestly and justly.
  4. In addition, the “right side” may change with the benefit of historical perspective. It seemed for a long time that Socialism was the wave of the future; a more humane system which would displace the old cacophony of exploitative competition. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the revelations of the atrocities committed therein, Socialism has been widely discredited, and the Christian sects which had jumped onboard are now largely irrelevant.
  5. See for example Pope Boniface VIII. Unam Sanctam (1302), arguing as if ordinance were the same as institution:

    However, one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power. For since the Apostle said: ‘There is no power except from God and the things that are, are ordained of God’ [Rom 13:1-2], but they would not be ordained if one sword were not subordinated to the other and if the inferior one, as it were, were not led upwards by the other.

  6. Obviously this analogy does not imply that authority is evil; only that the mode of thinking between the two examples is similar.
  7. The same is true for “rights”, which imply a certain authority over another person by eliminating possible options for him among which to act. But this tangent and all its implications for political philosophy are far outside the scope of this chapter.
  8. The authority discussed here is purely descriptive, and unrelated to questions of procedural authority that come up in constitutional democracies. Procedural authority is a pragmatic question; ours is a question of essence.
  9. “Action aims at the substitution of a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. Whether or not the outcome of a definite action will be considered more or less satisfactory depends on a correct anticipation of all its consequences, both short run and long run.” (Mises, Human Action, p. 653f)
  10. To speak of our obligation to God as a categorical imperative, separately from the goodness of God, is to define authority as the thing in itself, which usually stems from a confusion of authority with sovereignty.
  11. This is not to dismiss the moral obligation to obey civil laws so far as practicable. Though most activities currently forbidden under the law would be no sin in the absence of those laws, the earthly ends toward which the Christian aims in his faith are better served in most cases by compliance, hence the encouragement to “lead a peaceful and quiet life,” seeking that “all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:2, 4)
  12. I do not say organic authority, which Kuyper opposed to mechanical authority, because he included thereunder relationships such as that of a father to his son, which according to our definition would demand a mechanical obedience from the son where wills clashed, even in this organically occurring relationship.
  13. Cf. the discussion in “Calvinism and Politics” (Kuyper, 1898) on authority in the spheres of science and art.
  14. Calvin notes in his Commentary on Ezekiel (1565): “This work of the Spirit, then, is joined with the word of God. But a distinction is made, that we may know that the external word is of no avail by itself, unless animated by the power of the Spirit.”
  15. Calvin regards this exhortation as the “principal use” of the law. See Institutes of the Christian Religion (1564), 2.7.12:

    The servant of God will derive this further advantage from the Law: By frequently meditating upon it, he will be excited to obedience, and confirmed in it, and so drawn away from the slippery paths of sin.

  16. Augustine, Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John.
  17. For a fuller discussion of how losing the judgement of the authority of God cripples the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, see Albert Mohler’s essay “Why They Hate It So: The Denial of Substitutionary Atonement in Recent Theology” in Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology (2011). Mohler does, however, appear to fall into the opposite trap in completely denying the naturalness of Hell, which I respond to in a future post.
  18. This idea, connected to the naturalness of consequences, is expressed in beautiful prose by C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory using the example of a child learning Greek who initially does so only to avoid punishment, but having learned gradually comes to enjoy Greek poetry for its own sake.

Tags

Free Will, Hell, Sin, Sovereignty of God, Trinity, Abraham Kuyper, Al Mohler, Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Carl Henry, Carl Schmitt, Jean Bethke Elshtain, John Calvin, Ludwig Von Mises, Martin Luther

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8 Comments

  • 1

    Christopher Lee Crowell

    Apr 11, 2011 at 15:17 | Reply

    wow, lots of thoughts but not enough time to package them as well as yours. here goes anyway:

    so what *is* hell? I have long held the OT belief that hell is a separation from (abraham’s) god and I’m quite ok with that.

    you know, gravity is *just* a theory. some physicists contend it doesn’t even exist.

    finally, I want to leave you with this excerpt from “why I am agnostic” by Robert Ingersoll. I thought of it because of its opening (when I became convinced the universe is NATURAL) but primarily because it deals with freedom, a sort of freedom believer can’t comprehend, a freedom I find to be relevant to the title of your post. I felt thses words long before I read them:

    “When I became convinced that the Universe is natural — that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world — not even in infinite space. I was free — free to think, to express my thoughts — free to live to my own ideal — free to live for myself and those I loved — free to use all my faculties, all my senses — free to spread imagination’s wings — free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope — free to judge and determine for myself — free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past — free from popes and priests — free from all the “called” and “set apart” — free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies — free from the fear of eternal pain — free from the winged monsters of the night — free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought — no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings — no chains for my limbs — no lashes for my back — no fires for my flesh — no master’s frown or threat — no following another’s steps — no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

    And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain — for the freedom of labor and thought — to those who fell on the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains — to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs — to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn — to those by fire consumed — to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.”

    • 2

      Cameron Harwick

      Apr 11, 2011 at 16:44

      “so what *is* hell?”
      I would agree with your definition, with the qualification that such a separation is to be separated from anything good at all, since nothing good exists apart from God – the “form of the good” in Platonic jargon. Right now, though we’re alienated from God, we’re not totally separated, since we all receive bits and pieces of good here and there (common grace). Hell will be total separation even from that.

      Which would also be my answer to Ingersoll. His is exactly the paradigm I’m trying to break here. Ingersoll hasn’t freed himself from submission; in fact it’s not a question of freedom at all, since we’re all bound to what we consider our goals (not that any of us would consider that onerous unless we’re under coercion). He’s just reoriented his sights on lower and perishable goods.

      In fact, the believer who believes under the threat of final judgement is probably not a believer at all. Ingersoll has a gross caricature of a believer in mind; not the real thing. What it means to be a believer is to have apprehended the goodness of God, which leaves little room for divine coercion.

    • 3

      Christopher Lee Crowell

      Apr 11, 2011 at 16:56

      I posit all believers do so ultimately out of fear. without fear of the unknown (death), there is no need for god.

      it seems to me you are substituting an ideal – “good” or “goodness” – for “supreme being with anthropomorphic qualities.” nothing wrong with that, just finish the deed and toss out all the superfluous dogma. a black mass would do you wonders. ;)

      of course, I take issue with god being the “ultimate good” unless you also admit he is at the same time the “ultimate evil.”

    • 4

      Cameron Harwick

      Aug 12, 2012 at 12:37

      “without fear of the unknown (death), there is no need for god.”
      You’re right about death being the impetus, but I think one can go deeper than fear: the fundamental emotion is desire [for good, beauty, etc.], and fear (that the desire will remain unfulfilled) springs from that through the idea of death.

      The anthropomorphizing of God opens Christians up to more criticism than is probably fair. How comparable is divine consciousness to human consciousness? Likely less than most people imagine. Definitely qualitatively different, i.e. the difference between a dog and a human, not between Steven Hawking and Ms. South Carolina (http://cameronharwick.com/blog/on-the-orders-of-beauty/ and http://cameronharwick.com/blog/in-what-sense-does-god-act/ are about that difference in design and action, respectively). Nevertheless, I’m not willing to throw away the idea of intentionality, though with the recognition that it’s totally different from our own.

      As for “ultimate evil”, I would define evil like Augustine as the lack of good. God can and does cause evil by removing himself to certain degrees (i.e. that verse in Isaiah you like), but to say that God himself is evil (that is, essentially harmful to something) doesn’t make sense.

      If you mean he is the ultimate cause of what we perceive as good and evil, then yes. But ontologically, God has to be defined only as good.

  • 5

    Matt Richmond

    Apr 11, 2011 at 21:51 | Reply

    based on your definition I would say that the entire old testament is based on unnatural consequences. Sin? Flood. Sin? Plague. Sin? zeus thunderbolt.

    Personally, I consider “confirmable” actions (such as a world flood) to be a lot more legitimate when evaluating the nature of God than some philosophical chatter by one of the apostles (Paul). It’s nothing but shaky conjecture. The only way we know he is the “ultimate good” is through people telling us. On the other hand, plagues and world floods can at least be proven.

    • 6

      Christopher Lee Crowell

      Apr 11, 2011 at 21:54

      All the plagues of the OT, save the first born son dieing, have natural sources independent of divine intervention.

    • 7

      Matt Richmond

      Apr 11, 2011 at 21:56

      I think they ALL have natural sources independent of divine intervention. I’m just making a point :P

    • 8

      Cameron Harwick

      Apr 12, 2011 at 12:37

      Good point. Interesting thing about that; all the physical judgements in the OT (invasions, famines, etc.) were for sins of injustice and inflicted upon nations as a whole. Once the covenant passed from Israel to the Church and lost its ethnopolitical element, that more or less stopped (or at least we stopped getting prophets to tell us what disasters were specifically for). And without prophets, because natural disasters don’t naturally follow from any particular sin, I would chalk it up now to “the rain fall[ing] on the just and the unjust”. Economic crashes, I think, are the natural consequences of our own injustices now.

      Satisfactory answer? Probably not (yet), but I suspect that’s the key to it. I’ll think about it and write another post if anything interesting comes of it.

      As for confirmability, we all as good moderns have been raised with an empiricist mindset… which is just not adequate for describing the whole scope of reality. The question is not what can we observe, but now that we’ve observed, what does it mean?

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