Thursday, July 13, 2023

The Establishment Principle - by Jerrold Lewis

My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. John 18:36

To date, I am an Establishment Principle man.

Yet, I wonder...

if a soft critique of the Establishment Principle developed in Reformed Christian ecclesiology is not in order. I want to argue, for my own benefit, that the Establishment Principle is not directly derived from the Scriptures as much as it is a product of historical and cultural circumstances, specifically the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity under Constantine and then later, under Emperor Theodosius I, where the Christian/Roman synergism was established (380 A.D.).

In my mind, the Old Testament model of theocracy doesn't clearly correlate with the New Testament or Apostolic Church practices, or even the Patristics for that matter, which suggests that applying Old Testament concepts to Christian statecraft might be anachronistic or misguided. It's true that the New Testament, written in a context where Christians were a religiously persecuted minority within a largely non-Christian empire, doesn't clearly articulate a model of Christian governance, let alone advocate for a state church. Not so much as a whisper is heard, except to commend to the newly formed churches, their regional (godless heathen) governing authorities as “sent by God.”

From my readings of history, it appears that the concept of a state church was inherited from the old Roman political system (before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D. and after 380 A.D.), rather than organically arising from the civil template of the Old Testament. Indeed, the structure of the early Christian Church was heavily influenced by Roman administrative scaffolding, and the concept of a state church only became feasible once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire.

This problem extends to major figures in the Reformed tradition, such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, the authors of the Westminster Confession, and the Synod of Dort (whom I follow). It appears that they uncritically assumed the validity of the State Church model and only later, much later, imported the Old Testament framework to justify a concept that originated in a very different spiritual, historical, and cultural context.

The Same criticism can be made of Samuel Rutherford's "Lex, Rex" and George Gillespie's "Aaron's Rod," where they take the concept of a state church as rather de facto, than systematically proving its origins and validity from Scripture’s second half, the New Testament. In other words, there is a serious gap between Milan and Westminster, 1,263 years of assuming a principle that begs the question.

I am suggesting that there is a valid tension that needs to be explored between the historical, socio-ecclesiological development of the Church (and its self-understanding), and exegetical formulae. It also raises important questions about how the Church should relate to the state and how Christian principles should be applied in the political sphere, especially in a secular and pluralistic America.

We must fairly and critically re-examine presently held assumptions about the relationship between church and state, or at least regenerate them presently, and engage in a deeper, more precise way of understanding “the left and right hands” [Luther] of God’s creation.

My mind is open to correction and instruction. 

I want to know, not argue. Thoughts welcome.

By the Establishment Principle, I mean where both the Church and the State operate as equivalent powers, each with distinct jurisdictions, under the authority of the Word of God. The State is responsible for declaring, safeguarding, and advancing the true religion, upholding all ten commandments at a civil level, and establishing the true religion within its jurisdiction from a civic perspective, rather than a sacred one. This necessitates one Church for one nation. Or, one nation, one Church.

Conversely, the Church, which derives its existence and governance by Divine Right, is tasked with delivering God's Word to the State, ensuring it remains in line with these divine principles.